This past weekend, Gustavo Dudamel undertook the Herculean task of conducting Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in D major four times! It was Herculean not only because the running time for the symphony is approximately 90 minutes, but also because of the immense physical, intellectual and emotional demands on the conductor, not to mention the musicians in the orchestra.
Thus, on Sunday, after Dudamel and the LA Phil had performed the symphony three times, including on the Saturday night before, one could not have been blamed for wondering if he and they had the stamina to do it again. But Dudamel has a love affair with Mahler.
What he and the orchestra did on Sunday was simply astounding. In previous reviews, I have mentioned that some performances grab you and never let you go until the end, whereas others, while still very good, don’t have that effect. This performance was compelling from start to finish.
The symphony — Mahler’s last complete symphony (he died while working on a 10th) — finished in 1909, is said to be about death. Mahler’s 4-year-old daughter, Maria, had died in 1907, and he had already been diagnosed with a heart condition that would kill him two years later in 1911. The 25-minute symphonic-length first movement that has been called “the greatest achievement in symphonic composition,” begins in D major with a pastoral mood — Mahler, like Brahms, spent long hours walking in the woods and much of his music was inspired by nature. (The comparisons might not stop there as some, though not Brahms, have referred to his Symphony No. 2, also in D major, as his pastoral symphony.)
The marking Andante comodo — comfortably faster than andante — doesn’t really prepare the listener for the expansive, multi-thematic, dynamic movement to follow. Mahler follows the traditional sonata and rondo forms with the pastoral theme returning in different guises several times in the movement interspersed amongst a variety of distinctly Mahlerian symphonic dynamics and phrases.
The second movement, Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers (in the tempo of a leisurely Ländlers), is a typical Mahlerian Ländler — an Austrian folk dance — which he incorporated in other symphonies (e.g., Nos. 2 and 5), and which also reflects his love of nature.
The third movement is a furious Rondo – Burleske with startling counterpoint, and the final movement is a 25-minute Brucknerian adagio. Mahler was obviously influenced by Bruckner, and the last movement of Mahler’s Ninth begins not unlike the last movement of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. In light of Mahler’s deteriorating health and the death of his daughter, many have speculated that this final movement of his final completed symphony represents a farewell and, perhaps, a look beyond death. Regardless, the symphony stands on its own without any program as one of the greatest ever composed.
Dudamel has had a special affinity for Mahler for a long time, which goes beyond the fact that they share first names. He was introduced to the Mahler symphonies by his mentor in Venezuela, José Antonio Abreu. Dudamel’s career as an up-and-coming conductor really took off when in 2004 he won the inaugural Bamberger Symphoniker Gustav Mahler Competition. He was appointed the music director of the LA Phil in 2009, and a mere two years later he and the LA Phil toured Europe with the Mahler Ninth. In 2012, at the ripe young age of 31, Dudamel recorded the complete Mahler symphonies with the LA Phil and the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. And he has conducted most of the other Mahler symphonies during regular seasons with the LA Phil. This is all to say that Dudamel not only knows his Mahler but feels a special connection with the composer.
Now to the performance. Dudamel was in a zone. He conducted without a score and knew the entrance of every instrument and every dynamic. His hands frequently moved as if he were a painter painting a beautiful canvas. In the second movement, he bounced up and down and once even resembled a ballet dancer. After the strains of the last notes melted away, his hands remained in the air for so long it became uncomfortable for some in the audience who began clapping and then stopped when he didn’t drop his hands. He finally lowered his hands, and as he turned around to leave the stage, it looked as if he were crying. Of course, that wouldn’t be surprising as his mentor, José Antonio Abreu, died almost exactly one year ago. These performances may have been Dudamel’s final tribute to Abreu.
Of course, Dudamel had a lot of help from the outstanding players of the LA Phil, who, themselves, must know this piece very well. All of the first chairs were on stage, and each shone in his or her own way. The flute and horn solo in the first movement, played by the principals Denic Bouriakov and Andrew Bain, respectively, was a joy to hear. And the string sections, which dominated the last movement, never sounded better. The musicians obviously know how important Mahler, and this Ninth Symphony in particular, is to Dudamel.
It was a memorable evening.
But Dudamel is not done with Mahler this season. He will conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, also in D major, in a series of concerts from March 7 to 10.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA