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Laurie Niles

Los Angeles Philharmonic's Mahler Project: Mahler Symphony No. 6, 'Tragic'

February 1, 2012 at 7:45 AM

The Sixth Symphony by Gustav Mahler is so heart-wrenching and bleak, a sizable percentage of audience members opted for therapy after Saturday's concert, instead of going out for drinks or dessert.

You think I'm kidding. Not really! After Gustavo Dudamel took his last bow, after the applause stopped, after the musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic had exited, British Mahler scholar Norman Lebrecht took a lone chair on stage to help everyone cope. "What can you do after a performance of Mahler 6?" he asked. Several hundred stragglers gathered in the hall to commiserate.

The Mahler Project

But I was too elated to stay long. Maybe not elated; more like filled with gratitude. The "Tragic" symphony by Mahler is my favorite, and this was one top-notch live performance I'd just witnessed. To me, Mahler 6 is not so soul-crushing, despite its ending. It's energetic -- even violent, but it has moments of lush beauty and other-worldly sound. The ending of the last movement is, to use California vernacular, totally a bummer. But not everything can or should end loud and fast.

This symphony marches in with heavy boots -- driven and energetic. A contrasting theme in the first movement soars upward, every phrase wanting to linger on its highest note, until of course, the menacing march interrupts, sounding like Shostakovich, 30 years before its time.

Dudamel, from front
Photo courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic

My ears kept locking onto bits of Harry Potter, Disney music… Mahler is so often quoted in the movies. After the concert, Lebrecht observed that the symphony felt a little less menacing, played in Los Angeles, world capitol of filmmaking. Music that was disturbing to European audiences 100 years ago -- the unsettling premonitions of unrest and even war -- sounds to our modern ears like movie music.

The end of the first movement is exciting and triumphant, and it gets its shape from the trumpet; Principal Trumpeter Donald Green hit the target, with just the right amount of purity and bite. (Throughout the symphony, I must have written "trumpet nails it" a dozen times in my notes.) The end of the first movement roars straight into a wall -- it was incredibly energetic on Saturday.

Mahler left the order of the movements in this symphony to whomever conducts it, and Dudamel chose to put the slow "Andante moderato" second. In this movement, the melody begins in the violins and blooms into the colors of late summer -- nostalgic, but still enjoying the warmth. Dudamel sculpts music with a great deal of physical grace -- the grace of someone who wastes no gesture but can use even a tiny nod to great effect. This movement has moments of very high-pitched stillness, broken by passionate melody, made pastorale-sounding by cowbells. Occasionally the music disappears upward, like a cotton seed floating into the sky. I felt immensely grateful that this brilliant conductor stood here, before these dedicated and talented musicians, to create these moments of grace and beauty, as planned by this devoted composer. Music is all about the moment; it can only take place in time, against a silence either created by our design or by blocking the rest of the world out. I hope, at the end of my life, that people are still devoted to this kind of creation; it is one of the most complex and thrilling art forms we humans have ever invented.

The Scherzo brings us back to earth, with heavy stomping like the beginning of the symphony, only in three. The music comes to a shrill crescendo -- kudos to flutist Catherine Karoly for the piercing piccolo. The chaotic noise thins and slows into an elegant dance. Before the concert, Lebrecht mentioned that this symphony, for him, foretells marital doom rather than societal doom; Mahler was newly married to Alma when he wrote this symphony, but their relationship was headed for heartache. If so, perhaps the dance in this movement illustrates that idea better than the gloom and heartache of the other movements. The dance section begins deliberately, then it speeds up and scurries away. It snaps back into the proper tempo, only to run away again. How can you dance, when your partner keeps running away? For a while it turns downright sinister, like a dance in a field of land mines, and toward the end, a great deal of sarcasm enters, in the form of muted brass and collegno strings. The dance loses direction and wanders away quietly, against woodwind chatter, rather ambivalent.

The Finale begins with celeste (remember this instrument, from the Sugar Plum Fairy?) and rolling harp, for a groovy underwater effect. It's a hazy dreamworld, until a horn blast from another planet interrupts -- it's a startlingly unrelated chord. For a long time the music does not seem to alight on anything, until a low horn chorale brings things together. Then it revs up and each string section makes a strong statement -- under Dudamel, each section's bold entrance makes for visual theatre.

The music changes again and builds into waves of triumph and content. Nothing could ever go wrong! Until that celeste pushes us back under water and we have to start again. I knew that Mahler called for several "hammer blows" in this movement, but nonetheless I was startled when a percussionist slammed a mallet the size of my head down onto a big wooden box that looked like it could be a dog house for a bull mastiff. Indeed, the end of this symphony is killer: wrenching key changes, unrelenting noise, another hammer blow, six cymbals crashing. It builds and builds towards a happy resolution, but instead, we find the wrong chord built on the right note -- like going home and finding that the tornado knocked down all but three walls of your childhood house. The symphony sludges to the end in dissonance and disappointment, nearly silent, with one last, huge, awful blast. Dudamel kept his hands up, holding a very long silence after the symphony ended.

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