A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Semyon Bychkov conducted an unforgettable Mahler's Fifth this weekend. / photo courtesy of LA Phil

On April 3, Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov led the LA Phil in the challenging and expansive five-movement Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler, perhaps his best-known symphony after the First.

Mahler divided his Fifth Symphony into three sections with the first two movements comprising the first section, the extended Scherzo comprising the second section, and the fourth (Adagietto) and fifth (Rondo-Finale) movements comprising the third section.

Although Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was not programmatic, a hint at a program is suggested by the markings of the two movements – Trauermarsch (Funeral March) and Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence) – that make up the first section. The first movement begins with the signature solo trumpet, which then reappears throughout that movement as well as throughout the second movement; and it was played on Saturday night with resounding clarity and power by Associate Principal James Wilt. And as much as Mahler was said to have been influenced in this symphony by Bach, especially in the counterpoint used in the third and fifth movements, the influence of Beethoven is also apparent. For example, the triplet motif that Mahler used to signify the funeral march throughout the movement is the same one that Beethoven used in the second movement (Marcia funebre) of his Eroica Symphony.

Other standout performances on Saturday night included that of Principal Horn William Lane, whom Bychkov moved to the front of the string section for his solo during the Scherzo, as well as the entire trumpet, horn and trombone sections and the string section in the famous Adagietto.

Running at between 70 and 75 minutes without intermission, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was once thought to be too long to play in its entirety, and this might well be true with anything less than a great performance. However, it was certainly not true on Saturday night when Bychkov and the LA Phil treated the audience to a tour de force.

According to Wikipedia, the late conductor Herbert Von Karajan said of Mahler’s Fifth: “You forget that time has passed. A great performance of the Fifth is a transforming experience. The fantastic finale almost forces you to hold your breath.”

Whether Karajan actually said this or not, the statement certainly captures the performance on Saturday night by Bychkov and the LA Phil. Together they served up a great performance of the Fifth that was truly transforming such that at the conclusion, the entire audience spontaneously rose to their feet and loudly cheered in a rare display of unanimous approval.