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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 25, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 48
Los Angeles Philharmonic gives brilliant performance of Mahler's 9th Symphony
Arts & Entertainment
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Los Angeles Philharmonic gives brilliant performance of Mahler's 9th Symphony

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC
MAHLER'S 9TH SYMPHONY
BENAROYA HALL
November 4


Mahler's kaleidoscopic 9th Symphony was the composer's final work, often described as a meditation on death and mortality. Its 80 minutes and four movements contain a full spectrum of emotion, from the soft and tender to the jagged and shattering. It opens quietly and ends silently - so silently that you can't hear anything. The only evidence you have that the orchestra is playing is that the conductor's arms are moving. Yet in between these extreme pianissimos are titanic constructions of sound that build and recede like forces of nature - or fortissimos of nature. To my ears the work is more comprehensive than a farewell to life. Rather it seems like a monumental attempt to describe the human experience - akin to the works of Homer, Dante, Michelangelo, or Walt Whitman - while still sounding modern, jumpy, and edgy. It was a perfect match for the sculptural musicality of conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the massive force of LA Philharmonic's 106-member orchestra. Together they corralled Mahler's wild dynamics into a coherent whole.

Conductor Dudamel's expressiveness gives the audience as much confidence and sense of direction as it gives the orchestra. Because he conducted without a score, there were none of the downward glances or fast-flick-page-turning gestures that normally add drama to a conductor's movement at the podium. Instead, he shaped the music with his bare hands. His right hand - without a baton - kept time through the complex shifts and changes of the movements, while his left hand - and, at key moments, the circular swing of his entire arm, head, and torso - drew the full sensorium of emotions from the orchestra, like a wizard conjuring fantastical creatures from a bubbling caldron. At the end of the third movement Rondo-Burleske, for instance, the volume is so gigantic that Dudamel fairly jumped up and down on the podium as his left hand brought in one group of players after another, pointing, chopping, scooping, mixing, while his right hand kept everyone on the path that had suddenly turned into a race track. (I know I'm mixing metaphors - but the 9th Symphony is a magnificently mixed-metaphor kind of work.)

The symphonies of Gustav Mahler have become one of Gustavo Dudamel's specialties. In 2004, at the age of 23, he won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Germany, and in 2007 recorded Mahler's 5th Symphony with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in his native Venezuela. Since coming to the LA Philharmonic in 2009 he has recorded Mahler's Symphonies numbered 1, 5, 7, 8 and 9. This special relationship between composer and conductor has resulted in a sharp, romantic approach that never loses its way in the multi-layered technicality of the works. During the Benaroya Hall performance, the precision of each section of the orchestra was such that even in the loudest and most agitated sections of Mahler's score you could hear every instrument separately, from the ting of the triangle to the soft boom of the tuba. The violin sections bracketing the podium were so numerous and precise that when Dudamel cued them in, and they lifted their instruments to their chins simultaneously, it was as though a wooden floor had suddenly appeared at shoulder height, making a surface that flung the music into the air above our heads.

The perfectly mannered audience at Benaroya Hall supported this cohesion among composer, conductor, and orchestra. I was very impressed by the audience's disciplined silence between movements, when the excitement or the beauty of concluding phrases might have tempted lesser listeners into spontaneous applause. The audience's restraint and deeply committed attention allowed everyone to enter into a satisfying meditative state that lasted for the whole, uninterrupted, arc of performance. At the super-pianissimo conclusion, when all eyes were riveted on Gustavo Dudamel's uplifted arms, and all 106 instruments remained in mouths and on shoulders, and all 2,500 breaths in the auditorium were held, it was as if Mahler had found a way to describe - not death - but the Eternal Now. It was an unforgettable performance by an orchestra and its conductor in their primes. And since Gustavo Dudamel is only 35 years old, it's a prime that should last for a very long time.

Thank goodness that Seattle has a concert hall as inviting as Benaroya Hall, and a concert-going audience as mature and committed as those who were present at this brilliant performance of Mahler's 9th Symphony. We can hope and expect to see the LA Philharmonic for return visits in the future.

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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW:

Super busy, Bernadette Peters
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