Did you have a WTF moment Saturday night, a tug towards the ocean followed by a sensation of heaviness pulling downward for a second?
What you felt was the Mahlerian center of gravity in North America, shifting from Manhattan to snap into place beneath Los Angeles, minutes after Gustavo Dudamel and over 1000 musicians onstage at Shrine Auditorium finished Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony.
That performance was the last piece of the LA Philharmonic's ambitious Mahler Project: all nine of Mahler's ginormous symphonies performed in a little over three weeks. By one conductor. From memory. 101 years after Mahler's death, nobody to our knowledge has done that before. When it comes to Mahler, that makes The Dude, well–The Dude!
There are noteworthy Mahler conductors in Europe–Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado, Valeri Gergiev, Lorin Maazel, Pierre Boulez–but there's an odd void in the U.S. The New York Philharmonic can still claim that Mahler once conducted their orchestra and Leonard Bernstein popularized Mahler's music there in the '60s, but Alan Gilbert has had a bumpy ride there. James Levine–a Mahler maestro–stepped down in Boston, and no one knows when he'll conduct again.
That leaves Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony as The Dude's only real Mahlerian competition in North America, but has MTT conducted all nine in three weeks? San Francisco–you've been served!
More Observations on The Mahler Project
Dudamel's direction: Unlike Beethoven, Mozart, or Bach, whose musical meaning can survive a bad performance, Mahler requires sympathetic interpretation. You can't just play the notes. Some consider Dudamel's tempos slow; we found them appropriately expansive. The Dude relished the madness and grotesquery of Mahler's scores, highlighting their bipolarity by playing the more emotionally stable sections straightforwardly, which made the crazy passages all the more terrifying. While Dudamel delighted in bringing out the musical patchwork quilt aspects of Mahler, he also had a strong sense of long-range goals, which made the climaxes memorable. In Mahler's slow movements, Dudamel's flexibility was generous.
The Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra: The hugest string section we've ever seen. 22 first violins on down to 11 basses. Venezuelans like their orchestras muy grande, and the SBSO is an ideal vehicle to produce those frightening fortissimos in Mahler's 2nd and 5th symphonies. Yet that humongous string section was also sweetly intimate, as demonstrated by the tenderness of the Adagietto of the 5th Symphony. Incredibly solid work from all the wind and brass principals.
The choruses: Props to Grant Gershon, who prepped the LA Master Chorale for the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies, and rehearsed SIXTEEN choirs for the 8th. The sight and sound of 800 singers on risers joining in harmony will not be forgotten.
*A magical 4th Symphony that captured the child-like sense of wonder and mystery, with sweet singing from soprano Miah Persson (LA Phil); Thomas Hampson's heart-breaking interpretation of Songs of a Wayfarer, which opened that concert, was a nice contrast and a taste of Mahlerian tragedy to come.
*The Dude and the SBSO made a compelling case for programming the alternately dark and sunny 7th Symphony more often. And how about that spooky tenor horn solo in the first movement? We love that the mandolin and guitar parts were played by two cellists who set aside their cellos.
*After hearing the meh recording of the 5th Symphony by Dudamel and the SBSO, we were surprised at how thrilling, sweet, and joyful it was in Disney Hall. While the solos were all wonderfully played their unnamed principal horn (and the entire section) earns special credit here for such convincing work.
*The outer movements of the 9th Symphony, played by the LA Phil on Feb. 3, left us with a suspicious moisture in our eyes. Heartbreaking beauty in the 1st movement, guided by Dudamel's vision of tragedy repeatedly beating down placid yearning; the music just fell apart at the end of this movement, and that's pretty much how we felt too.
*It wasn't a perfect Mahler 8 experience–the sound-sucking acoustics of Shrine Auditorium dampened the sonic grandeur and the tenor soloist was embarrassingly weak-voiced. It was also Dudamel's first crack at this tough nut, and he didn't make it any easier on himself by insisting on living up to the work's nickname, “Symphony of a Thousand.” Nevertheless, it was a hell of a musical roller coaster, and a spectacular way to end the cycle.
Wrap your brain around this: the LA Phil is flying down to Caracas, home of the SBSO, where Dudamel and Venezuelan choirs will repeat the entire Mahler cycle.