Music review: Gustavo Dudamel conducts Mahler's Seventh and Ninth
In the final and most demanding week of his Mahler Project, Gustavo Dudamel has been pushing a conductor’s physical, mental and Mahler endurance about as far as it can go. There have been single days in which he has rehearsed two different symphonies and performed a third. He has been, all the while, shuttling between two radically different orchestras -– the feisty Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and the refined Los Angeles Philharmonic -- as well as shuttling between Walt Disney Concert Hall and the twice-as-big Shrine Auditorium.
Tuesday night with the Bolívars at Disney, Dudamel conducted an 80-minute Seventh, which is the least performed and most elusive of Mahler’s nine completed symphonies. On Thursday, Dudamel led the first of three performances of a lyrically transcendental 90-minute Ninth with the L.A. Phil. In extraordinary performances -– conducted, as usual, from memory -- Dudamel reached new and Mahlerian heights. If he was exhausted, he didn’t show it.
He is, of course, exhausted. During a break between rehearsals Wednesday, Dudamel, struggling to remain coherent, delivered a few groggy remarks to an audience of 400 educators at an L.A. Phil symposium on Venezuela’s El Sistema music education program. The conductor also, after all, is engaged in a full-time engineering challenge of putting together the spiritually ecstatic Eighth with a cast of a thousand at the Shrine Saturday night.
But his total Mahler immersion appears to have taken him to a new place where questioning Mahler’s intentions is out of the question. More than ever before, Dudamel went with the Mahler flow. Not abstractly, not distractedly, certainly not without ego, but with a kind of fervor of acceptance.
This is a radical approach. Modern audiences respond to Mahler’s magnificent ambiguity. He is perhaps the most expressive symphonic composer of all times, yet there is not a bar in all the thousands of each symphony that can’t be read in more than one way. One musician or listener hears nostalgia and another the opening of new vistas. It is not wrong to call Mahler a profoundly death-haunted symphonist. Yet his was a musical glass always more than half full. Mahler’s ability to impart a manic sense of affirmation is unrivaled in the symphonic literature.
The embracing of life’s possibilities and contradictions is always the great interpretive issue for any conductor. The Seventh, which is called the “Song of the Night” because of its two sweetly soured serenading “night music” inner movements, is a mysterious work. Its last movement, with its celebratory percussion and exuberant counterpoint, is almost too glorious. The Sixth ended in utter tragedy. The Seventh begins with a haunted tenor horn solo and the beating of a big bass drum; where did all this triumph come from?
The Bolívars brought brawn and ferocity, but also a jazzy spirit (almost akin to a New Orleans funeral), to the opening. “Night music” for Dudamel and his Venezuelans was the call of the night, seductive and seductively scary. Mahler wanted the middle movement, an eccentric Scherzo, to sound “spectral.” Dudamel took it moment by moment, one weird passage following another as in a spooky amusement park fun ride. In the loud and propulsive Finale, Dudamel seemed to have one thing in mind, to be an obliging sweeper away of all that went before.
The Ninth might be seen as the antithesis of the Seventh. The romantic notion is to think of this as Mahler’s sad yet incomparably beautiful farewell to life, the final pages making palpable the last breath and the sublime acceptance of death.
Dudamel’s first series of Ninths with the L.A. Phil last year, deeply impressive as it was, had the appearance of easily buying into all this. His interpretation was said to grow as the orchestra played the score in places like London, Budapest, Paris and Vienna.
On Thursday night, I heard little such philosophical probing and a more straightforward pursuit of beauty -- extraordinary beauty, the kind that you can never get enough of or go too deeply into.
The L.A. Phil was marvelous. Dug-in string sound opened the consoling closing Adagio as if this really were the song of a richly fertile earth. The winds moved me particularly, be it the succor of a solo oboe, solo clarinet, solo flute or even solo contrabassoon, and they must have moved Dudamel too. He had them stand first for bows. The brass were eloquent.
I never noticed Death enter the room. Rather Dudamel reached a Mahlerian pinnacle and took in his surroundings conveying a sense of rapt awe. Under such conditions, spiritual solace becomes self evident, or even irrelevant.
-- Mark Swed
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday; $85 to $110. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.
Photo: Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Mahler's Ninth Symphony Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times