Mahlerpalooza: Gustavo Dudamel Makes L.A. the Mahler Capital of North America
Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging Gustavo Dudamel concludes The Mahler Project at Shrine Auditorium. Not visible here: 1000 more musicians and singers
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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.