Gustav Mahler was already obsessed with death when he composed his penultimate finished work, 1909’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), and — like life itself — the stirring song-symphony moves through a range of deep emotions over the course of its six songs.
Longtime Mahler fanatic Gustavo Dudamel passionately urged the L.A. Philharmonic through the distinct passages of Das Lied von der Erde on Thursday night, at the first of four performances at Disney Hall this weekend. The conductor was able to summon forth the full power of a large version of the orchestra when necessary but also maintained poise to allow the subtler sections to breathe softly.
Death is ever-present in Das Lied von der Erde, and opening night was shadowed by the recent passing of José Antonio Abreu, the Venezuelan conductor who founded El Sistema, the country’s influential music-education program for needy kids. “Every single note … has been guided by the spirit of my maestro,” Dudamel said in tribute to his mentor at the beginning of the concert.
Tenor Russell Thomas and mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford alternated vocals on each of the six songs. Sporting a black suit with a white vest and shirt, Thomas got off to a strong start with the first tune, “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow.” He performed in front of a large screen and interacted with animated images, appearing to sing from inside the mouth of a horn or standing atop the crow’s nest of a ship. The imagery was the result of a collaboration between the Chilean collective Teatrocinema and L.A. Phil’s ever-enterprising artistic muse Yuval Sharon, who has directed several of the orchestra’s more ambitious visual presentations this season.
The backdrop of animation was simple but generally evocative and playful, although the images didn’t always mirror the emotional intensity of Mahler’s darker songs. The mood shifted dramatically on the second song, “The Solitary One in Autumn,” as a barefoot Mumford, decked out in a sleeveless, dark-blue velvet gown, cast out melancholic vocals into the void of delicate spaces anointed by oboist Marion Arthur Kuszyk’s austere melodies. Mumford’s somber manner counteracted the sometimes-cutesy animation when she was seen riding in a serpent-headed golden boat as Dudamel maintained the orchestra’s cool restraint.
Thomas returned for the third song, “Youth,” demonstrating some of his impressive operatic power over the merry interactions of clarinetists Boris Allakhverdyan and Burt Hara. The American tenor was a forceful presence in recent seasons when he starred in L.A. Opera’s Norma at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and in Dudamel and L.A. Phil’s concert performance of Tosca at the Hollywood Bowl, and he was typically strong at Disney Hall on Thursday. However, because he was placed behind the expansive orchestra so he could interact with the animated projections, Thomas’ facial expressions were harder to discern, and his dramatic intensity and overall volume were necessarily lessened. It might have helped to have Thomas and Mumford occasionally step up to the front of the stage to reveal more of their personalities.
However, in this production, both Mumford and Thomas are virtually animated characters woven with the textures of the backdrop of images, and at times that illusion was effective, as on the fourth song, “Beauty,” in which Mumford jerked about as if she were a puppet on a string while cavorting with a toy soldier riding a rocking horse. At the beginning of “Beauty,” Dudamel leaned forward in quiet anticipation like a cat ready to pounce. The song’s early moments of sleepy harp plucking and the enchanting interplay of wind instruments soon gave way to a bold explosion of sound as Dudamel raised his arms and released the full strength of the combined horns and percussion.
The conductor leaped in place, driven by the heft of the music on the fifth song, “The Drunkard in Spring,” while Thomas’ body appeared to bend and expand woozily as if he were being seen through a funhouse mirror. “What do I care about springtime?” he bellowed. “Let me stay drunk!”
But it was the last and longest song, “The Farewell,” that was the most emotionally moving. The song began with stark, foreboding chords and solemn, dark spaces that were lit up by Kuszyk’s exotic lines. Mumford’s sad vocals were twined elegantly within Denis Bouriakov’s serpentine flute and Kuszyk’s weaving oboe in anticipation of a forceful upwelling of the string section that washed magnificently over the song. As Mumford rhapsodized about “the blue light of the beyond,” the song — and the idea of life itself — wound downward gently, descending airily through the candied chimes of Joanne Pearce Martin’s celesta tones before fading out entirely into beautiful silence.
L.A. Phil continues its performances of Das Lied von der Erde on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as a closing matinee on Sunday that will not include the animated elements.
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; Fri.-Sat., April 6-7, 8 p.m; Sun., April 8, 2 p.m.; $20-$199. (323) 850-2000, laphil.com.