Monday, November 7, 2016

Mahler Ninth

It is difficult to believe that Mahler symphonies were, until the efforts of conductors like Mitropoulos and Bernstein in the 1950’s and 1960’s, thought to be tortuous and largely incomprehensible. Today, Mahler symphonies have become the calling cards of conductors. Even so, performances of the composer’s 9th symphony are still special events in any orchestra’s calendar.

Gustavo Dudamel, the young and very talented music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, brought his “band” to Seattle’s Benaroya Hall for a single performance of this, the last completed symphony of Gustav Mahler. In the programme notes, writer Steven Lowe made the oft-repeated idea that Mahler’s final symphony was his farewell to the world, and that the composer was filled with thoughts of his impending death. I was taught by a musicologist not to read too much of any composer’s life into his music. In fact, according to Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange, the composer was in quite a positive frame of mind when he wrote the 9th symphony. That said, the work is filled with a very elegiac quality, especially in the two outer movements, that made such associations tempting.

Ever since reading about this very special concert, I had been waiting for the day with much anticipation. I had so wanted to hear this great orchestra under a conductor of which so much has been written.

I must confess that I was slightly disappointed with the playing of the 1st movement. To be sure, the orchestral playing in each section was of the very highest level, but somehow I thought Dudamel did not really penetrate the spiritual core of this movement, and the music, to me, sounded rather episodic, going from one climax to the next. Even the great climax at 15 measures after Rehearsal number 14, where Mahler marks Pesante (Höchste Kraft), seemed underplayed, and did not give the impression of the apocalyptic vision the composer (I think) had in mind. I did feel that things got much better toward the end of the movement. The French horn solo of Schon ganz langsam (52 measures after Rehearsal number 16) was played with great poignancy, and a palpable sense of regret and nostalgia.

The rest of the symphony left me with a completely different impression. In the second movement, Dudamel captured the weirdness of this corrupted Ländler in the different harmonization of the woodwind figures that first appear in measures 3 and 4. At measure 9, the second violins played with an earthiness and gutsiness in the sound that was striking. I was also captivated with the playing of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s horn section, which figures so prominently in this work. The intonation was impeccable, and the sound was always beautiful even in the biggest climax.

Dudamel’s reading of the brutal Burleske movement was truly frightening and breathtaking. There was, in the performance, a sense of weight in the string sounds of the orchestra. Special kudos to Associate Principal viola Dale Hikawa Silverman, who truly shined in the many prominent solos in the movement, playing with great power and really capturing the unique character of the movement.

The young conductor led the orchestra in the final Adagio in playing that was truly magisterial, and with a sense of totality from first note to last that I missed in the first movement. In the first statement of chorale, the Los Angeles strings played with a sound like burnished gold. In that incredible descending scale figure of C-flat, B-double flat, A-flat and G-flat (Wieder zurückhaltend), the orchestra played with a frightening and unbearable intensity that the music calls for, making those brief four measures lasting seemingly an eternity before the chorale returns. At the end of the movement, Dudamel kept his hands in the air for more than a minute, hearing the intense silence, and respecting Mahler’s marking of ersterbend, before the storm of applause broke the spell of this incredible music. The performance was such that applause seemed like such a rude intrusion.

I felt privileged to have been a witness to this very special evening of music making.

Patrick May, November 6, 2016

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