A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Gustavo Dudamel

On Thursday night, Gustavo Dudamel continued his Mahler marathon by conducting his hometown band, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (SBSOV) (formerly the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra), in a rousing, impassioned performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Mahler began writing the first two movements of his fifth symphony (which he designated in the score as Part I) in 1901 after he almost died from an illness, but then completed the work the following year when he was fully recovered. And without knowing the details, one can tell which movements were written when. In the first movement, marked Trauermarsch (Funeral march), whether unconsciously or consciously, Mahler uses the same four-note motif used by Beethoven in the second movement (Marcia funebre) of his Symphony No. 3, and also in the opening movement of his fifth symphony. The theme is first presented by the solo trumpet and was played with power and precision by principal trumpeter Tomás Medina. After an emotional rollercoaster ride (which pretty much can be said about the entire symphony), the movement ends with an increasingly softer roll on the bass drum punctuated at the end by pizzicato violas, cellos and basses.

Mahler designated the second movement (also Part I), which Dudamel appropriately played without interruption, as Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter vehemenz (Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence), in which one can also hear the same four-note motif although less conspicuously. If the first movement reflects Mahler’s resignation, the second reflects his anger. However, like the first movement, the second ends with a whimper with quiet glissandos in the violas, cellos and bases followed by two final pizzicato eighth notes and one final pianissimo eighth note by the timpani.

Things change with the third movement (Scherzo), marked Kräftig, nicht zu schnell (strongly, not too fast), which alone constitutes Part II. Not only does the key change from C# minor (in the first movement) and A minor (in the second movement) to D major, but the mood is joyous and dancelike. However, echoes of foreboding reappear, reminding us of the tragic, stormy first two movements, with markings of Sehr wild (very wild). There was also some first-rate playing by principal horn player Daniel Graterol leading up to the conclusion of the movement, which resembles that of Mahler’s first symphony.

Mahler wrote the famous fourth movement, Adagietto (Part III), also in a major key (F major) for strings and harp; and the strings of the SBSOV, sounding like more mature musicians, played it with the intense feeling that Mahler obviously felt and wanted to convey. The strings-only movement was a stark contrast to the previous brass, woodwind and percussion-heavy first three movements, and Dudamel was able to stretch out the last note, as Mahler wrote it, diminishing from quiet to very quiet followed by a pause that Dudamel kept (with the audience breathless) by very slowly lowering his arms.

The last movement, Rondo-Finale: Allegreo giocoso, in D major, begins with the single E played by the horn, answered by a low A in the violins and then the horn, and answered this time by the bassoon and then the oboe and clarinet, all of which play back and forth until the horn leads into the entire orchestra joining in what can be best described as a bucolic and joyful melody. The horn part was played with sensitivity but confidence by the second principal horn, Rafael Payare. The movement rushes to a joyous climactic ending, again resembling the conclusion of Mahler first symphony, and making the listener almost forget the intense woefulness of the first two movements.

The individual musicianship of the SBSOV is obviously not of the same caliber as, say, the LA Phil, although there are some definite standouts. But what they lack in their playing, which is admittedly not that much, they more than make up for in their passion for the music and their obvious love and respect for Dudamel, which they showed by stomping their feet during the curtain calls and then refusing to stand when he asked them to. These young musicians, many of whom were born poor and with little to no music in their lives before becoming a part of Fundación Musical (the Venezuelan orchestral academic program), now find themselves playing on the great concert stages of the world for enthusiastically appreciative audiences. They take nothing for granted and, on Thursday night, left it all on the stage, putting not only their hearts and souls into it, but their bodies as well. Each section swayed together with the music; the total effect was a sea of movement. It was a performance from the gut as well as the head, and with a smiling and ecstatic Dudamel, they offered a performance of the 75-minute Mahler that flew by and brought the audience to their feet screaming.

It must be said that if it weren’t for his unabashed modesty and humbleness, Dudamel might be considered to be superhuman. He is conducting all the Mahler symphonies, plus some other works by the composer, all from memory and in less than a month. That’s no small accomplishment. There are many, more seasoned conductors, who haven’t even memorized one of Mahler’s symphonies. And one can tell that Dudamel has learned every part; he cues most of the accents in the music. Finally, one can tell how much he loves this music — indeed, all music he conducts — and it’s also apparent that the SBSOV would do anything for him; and they did on Thursday night, leaving the audience in a state of frenzy. All one can say is “Wow,” and hooray for the Fundación Musical!

— Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

See the full Mahler Project schedule here: http://www.laphil.com/tickets/mahler/index.cfm.

Immerse yourself in full concert performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by dynamic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, live from both Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and this season, Dudamel’s home turf of Caracas, Venezuela, with LA Phil LIVE at movie theaters. Learn more at: http://www.laphil.com/laphillive/.