Classical Music Buzz > Interchanging Idioms > Mahler Project: Symphony No. 1, ...
by Ebner Sobalvarro
Performance dates: January 20, 21, 22, 2012


The second weekend of the Mahler Project brought two of the more anticipated symphonies by the composer, including the Adagio of his uncompleted final symphony.

Gustavo Dudamel and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 go way back, to the time when he was 16. It was the first big symphonic piece he ever conducted, and his connection to it has grown over time. He chose it in 2009 for the gala concert that inaugurated his first season as music director with the LA Philharmonic. He also toured the piece with them throughout the US in May of 2010. Mahler was in his late 20’s when he wrote it, yet it is an unusually mature work for a first symphony. Its theme is that of a romantic hero who must face the tribulations of a harsh world before emerging victorious.

Dudamel made it crystal clear from the outset, like he did in ‘09: this is his Mahler 1. Whatever reputation he has built for himself as a lover of slow tempi would not be dispelled here. Dudamel’s hero leisurely strolled through nature in the first movement, with no rush and infinite patience. The maturation of his conducting continues from what he displayed in October: more economic yet effective gestures, a fearless ability to control time in the music, and a more focused energy going into the overall sound. For its part, the orchestra did everything he wanted without trepidation. They transitioned fluidly from a careless stroll to hurried sprint (he may love going slow, but he sure likes going fast we well). The second movement is a dance, its first theme more village square than ballroom. But interestingly, it felt stately and proud, fit for a king. That continued with the more waltz-like second theme, regal and even a bit privileged in attitude.

The famous third movement features the children’s song “Frere Jacques” in a minor key funeral march, with a rare solo from the principal double bass. It was lovingly played, with a somber quality that permeated the rest of the movement, along with that stubbornly slower tempo. Even the Klezmer music that is a point of intrusive humor didn’t have the lighthearted quality that it’s often played with. With a shocking scream, the fourth movement started, and it was a rollercoaster. All caution was thrown into the wind as Dudamel hit the gas, the orchestra playing with unbelievable drive and propulsion, taking no prisoners. Only when they slowed for the lyrical section did we hear the heart of a weary warrior. The piece has gotten better with age.

The Adagio from the unfinished Symphony No. 10 was the most ‘completed’ part of the work, with sketches of the other movements in various stages of development by the time Mahler died in 1911. At this time he was dealing not only with his failing health but with the revelation that his wife was having an affair (the manuscript of this symphony is covered with words describing his agony). If it sounds a little creepy at times, it’s because he wrote it so well, showing all the character of a crushed soul. It also extends a conflict from his stirring Symphony No. 9 of making the difficult transition from late Romantic music to modern music. Dudamel’s take was unsentimental, despite the nature of the music. What emerged was very savvy playing from the orchestra that created a subtext of a mind in torment, a mind that was slowly losing its grip and becoming detached. It stood in stark contrast to the Mahler 1 that preceded it.

On Sunday night, it was time for the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra to make their first contribution to the Mahler Project, presenting the gargantuan Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection.” The small army, numbering about 160 musicians, would be responsible for performing the funeral rites for the hero from Mahler 1, reflecting on all of his life’s key moments, in the first movement. The second is a nostalgic flashback, followed by a cynical third movement full of mock happiness. But then, the finale is nothing short of a musical miracle, in which Mahler lifts everyone into the heavens. Mahler 2 isn’t performed very often, due to the need for such a large orchestra, choir, mezzo-soprano, soprano, an offstage band and an organ. When it is presented, it’s quite an event.

If you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t have know the orchestra has an average age of 24 (they are not officially being called a ‘youth’ orchestra anymore). Their musical chops are that good, and when combined with the kind of sincerity and enthusiasm that exists during this stage of life, you believe absolutely everything they have to say musically. Dudamel smiled proudly and often at his band (he has been its music director since 1999) as they carefully spelled out all of the passages of the funeral march, examined with a macro lens. When he unleashed the power of the group at several dramatic moments, their response was terrifying in volume and intensity. They never let up and they never go on auto-pilot.

The ländler of the second movement was a warm blanket that covered the listener, highlighted by an elegant ensemble pizzicato. Rhythmically, they found a fantastic lilt during the waltz scherzo of the third movement, after which mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotjin was a sensitive vocalist making a profound statement of faith during the “Urlicht”. With the final movement, Dudamel presented things a bit piecemeal, as he had during a few moments in the funeral march. He’s endlessly interested in studying moments to their fullest. Sometimes, it’s a fascinating insight, but other times it distends the whole work at the expense of total structure. Examples of the former were the so-called “March of the Dead,” proud and enlivened, and the “grosse Appell,” the summoning of souls to be judged. The Los Angeles Master Chorale was peerless when they entered with the “Resurrection” chorale, and with the added beauty of soprano Miah Persson, it was a stunning vocal force. It was just after 9PM when the skies opened up and everyone saw, for a moment, what Mahler imagined the next world would be like. It was good enough to make believers out of everyone in attendance.


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