Gustavo Dudamel’s much-anticipated Mahler Project opened in grand style at Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend. Culture Spot LA attended the Jan. 14 concert, and clearly Gustavo and Gustav have a kinship that is special.
The Mahler Project is an international collaboration between the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. The two orchestras will present Mahler’s entire symphonic corpus over an intense few weeks here in LA, and then repeat the cycle in Caracas to honor the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death.
This first program featured the LA Phil with internationally acclaimed American baritone Thomas Hampson singing Songs of a Wayfarer (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) and Symphony No. 4 with Swedish soprano Miah Persson joining in the final movement. The pairing made for a great introduction to the Project. Arguably these two compositions frame the early period of Mahler’s development and are perhaps the most tuneful and approachable of his works. Both compositions were based loosely on the popular German folk poetry of The Youth’s Magic Horn (Des Knaben Wunderhorn), although Mahler composed the text himself.
Dudamel, without score, led us through Mahler’s all-too-personal sentiments of love, rejection, grief and aimless wandering. His style this evening was a bit more subtle than usual, perhaps saving his energy for the immense journey on which he has embarked. His left hand produced significant direction; I found myself mesmerized by its fluid expression. The tonus of each muscle was informed by the innate soul of this magnificent music.
Large in stature with an even larger voice, Hampson, who spent much of the past year celebrating Mahler, was a commanding presence in persona and sound. His voice filled the entirety of the Hall, and his expressions and gestures bespoke the affect of love and youth. His range of expression was extraordinary.
Hampson found the character in each movement and realized them masterfully. The opening song, When My Sweetheart Is Married, featured upbeat winds juxtaposed against his dark, sullen vocals.
I Went Over the Field This Morning sported an energetic melody and pastoral feel with the flute and voice. The sound was delicate with brilliant combinations of winds and high strings, punctuated with subtle percussion effects.
As you may expect, I Have a Gleaming Knife was highly charged, relatively dissonant and loud. Dudamel allowed the smallish ensemble to play unbound. The despair and angst were palpable in both Hampson and the musicians.
The concluding song of the cycle, The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved, was beautifully lyrical and evoked a connotation of chorale. The ending produced a sweet reverie that left the audience somewhat stilled, and Dudamel heightened the effect with his lingering gestures. The delayed applause increased in its intensity over a period of minutes.
After a short intermission, we heard Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, perhaps the most often performed of his compositions, and the last of his delightful Wunderhorn-inspired works. Persson’s final song was preceded by three symphonic movements that were significantly weighted with woodwinds. Curiously, there were no low brass instruments, their role artfully subsumed by bass-clarinet, contrabassoon, seven contrabasses and percussion.
The first movement, in traditional sonata form, was lightly warmed by the cheery sound of gentle sleigh bells and high, chirping winds. The second movement scherzo, featured Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour with devilishly alluring fiddle-style passages. The adagio was wonderfully serene and peaceful, and the Phil players executed Mahler’s orchestration flawlessly. Every detail in the combination of individual instruments was exquisite, and easily perceived in our magnificent Disney Hall.
Persson produced a heavenly song that soared high with the saints she referenced. Her silken voice gave meaning to the melodies that Mahler had so skillfully crafted. Her artistry was astonishingly affective.
Bravo to Dudamel and his vision for this Project! Place him in league with Bernstein and Boulez among Mahler enthusiasts. Bravo to Hampson and Persson for their unforgettable performances! Don’t miss the unique opportunity to experience this epic musical adventure as we move into the deeper realm of Mahler’s psyche in the coming weeks.