Music review: Gustavo Dudamel's monster Mahler 8 in Caracas
Carnival starts on Monday in Caracas. But the chaos outside the Teatro Teresa Carreño on Saturday night as crowds arrived to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct a gargantuan Mahler's Eighth Symphony was indication that something was already in the air.
Venezuelans love monster concerts, the more performers the better, partly as a matter of national pride at their extensive and inclusive music education system. This was Mahler's “Symphony of a Thousand” with 1,400 performers, and many people without tickets showed up anyway, jostling to get past an ineffective security cordon. Their backup was a free outdoor screen area where people could sit and watch the performance while enjoying the lovely Caribbean breezes.
Inside, a chorus of 1,200 mostly young, uniformly ecstatic singers unleashed vast reserves of controlled energy filling every inch of the hall. They also let loose additional reserves of adrenaline at the curtain calls, with the chorus cheering Dudamel even more lustily than the audience, creating an amazing antiphonal applause.
Forget the Shrine Auditorium. That is where Dudamel had conducted an eventful but acoustically crippled Mahler's Eighth two weeks earlier with the combined Los Angeles Philharmonic and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, a chorus of 1,000 Angelenos and eight vocal soloists in a venue with room for an audience of more than 5,000.
You don't take those numbers lightly. There was a lot to go wrong — and to go wrong in a very public way since the L.A. Phil, on tour here all week for five Mahler concerts, was showing Saturday's concert live throughout the U.S. and Canada and some of Latin America as a theatercast.
It's been a tough tour for the orchestra. The players are not used to spending so much time in this part of the world and about a quarter of the ensemble has had some sort of food poisoning, causing dropouts all week, including on Saturday.
A massive chorus, no matter how excellently trained, is a handful to deal with. At one point during a rehearsal Dudamel showed rare signs of shortness and frustration when nothing he tried would keep the mob rhythmically together.
Just getting everyone on- and offstage proved a feat. It was hot on the risers, and the chorus stood throughout the 80-minute piece. At each rehearsal and during the performance, a few fainted and had to be discreetly helped off stage. (All of them were fine.)
And then one couldn't help but wonder just how well Dudamel was holding up with his exhausting Mahler Project. There were good signs the past three days. On Wednesday, the orchestra had given a tight, incisive, brilliantly played Mahler Sixth. The next night Dudamel led a finely nuanced reading of the Adagio from Mahler's Tenth, followed by a hot Mahler First that was excitingly off the charts. (This was a reverse of the order of the First and Tenth in L.A., and that allowed the evening to end in a proper blaze of brass glory that generated frenzied, screaming applause).
Dudamel's reading of the Eighth has already matured. The Shrine had been his first time conducting the mammoth score, but he had had several rehearsals in Caracas to refine instrumental detail. He had an acoustic he could work with. But most important, the occasion has a special meaning for him in his country.
Not only was he combining two orchestras of which he is music director, but there was the all-Venezuelan chorus that seemed to fuel the event. Yet this was not just a grand performance, it was a communal one. The chorus, which included 400 children who sang from memory, was simply indescribable as the many became one.
The soloists also flourished in these remarkable surroundings. Tenor Burkhard Fritz apparently got over his cold. Sopranos Manuela Uhl, Julianna Di Giacomo and Kiera Duffy, contraltos Anna Larsson and Charlotte Hellekant, baritone Brian Mulligan and bass Alexander Vinogradov blended well and, when needed, soared.
The chorus all wore ribbons with the Venezuelan colors. The Mahler Project here is called “Con Dudamel por la Paz.” With Dudamel for peace. Peace in Caracas is clearly something deserving of great and glorious commotion.
-- Mark Swed, reporting from Caracas, Venezuela
Photo: The Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and 1,200 singers performed of the Mahler Eighth at Teatro Teresa Carreño in Caracas. Credit: Mark Swed/Los Angeles Times