The Mahler Project: The composer in L.A.
Gustavo Dudamel’s Mahler Project -- performances of the conductor's nine symphonies and Adagio of the 10th with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Simón Bolivar Orchestra in 24 days -– will make history. That is more Mahler in a month than L.A. has ever witnessed. It also appears to be more Mahler than a single conductor has attempted, which Dudamel talks about in an Arts & Books feature.
But, the cow bells used in the Sixth Symphony notwithstanding, L.A. is hardly a Mahler cow town. In fact, it has a unique place in the composer’s legacy.
New York certainly has Mahler rights. The composer, who died in 1911, briefly led the New York Philharmonic toward the end of his life. Several conductors who succeeded him in New York over the next half-century were Mahlerians, including Willem Mengelberg, John Barbirolli, Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski and Dmitri Mitropoulos. Finally in the 1960s, Leonard Bernstein initiated a Mahler revival with the New York Philharmonic that turned the symphonies into standard repertory.
Even so, L.A. happened to be where many of Mahler’s most significant adherents settled. The two young conductors closest to Mahler were Otto Klemperer and Walter. Klemperer was music director of the L.A. Phil from 1933 to 1939. Walter immigrated to Beverly Hills in 1939. The Columbia Symphony, with which Walter recorded Mahler in the late ’50s and early ’60s (he died in 1962), was essentially the L.A. Phil.
The L.A. Phil, itself, jumped onto the Mahler bandwagon big time during Zubin Mehta’s tenure as music director in the ’60s and ’70s. His successor, Carlo Maria Giulini, was known for his spiritual way with the Ninth. Later, Esa-Pekka Salonen presented Mahler often and as a proto-modernist. Dudamel has only conducted the Mahler First and Ninth with the L.A. Phil, but both were symphonies he took on tour.
Finally, there was William Malloch, the music director of the FM radio station KPFK, who did much through broadcasting to foster the Mahler revival of the ’60s. During that time, Malloch interviewed the surviving New York Philharmonic members who had played under Mahler for his invaluable radio documentary, “I Remember Mahler.” Parts of it are included on Gilbert Kaplan’s recording of Mahler’s Second. The full program can be found on the New York Philharmonic’s special edition 10-CD cycle of the symphonies, “Mahler in New York.”
-- Mark Swed
Photo: Gustavo Dudamel conducting Mahler's First Symphony in 2009, as part of his first Walt Disney Concert Hall program as Los Angeles Philharmonic music director. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times.