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Laurie Niles

Los Angeles Philharmonic's Mahler Project: Mahler Symphony No. 9

February 4, 2012 at 10:30 PM

Perhaps the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela are rubbing off on each other over their two-month collaboration, playing all 10 symphonies by Gustav Mahler for The Mahler Project.

The Mahler Project

Could it be that the LA Phil is catching some youthful energy, watching and rehearsing with their Venezuelan counterparts? Are the young Venezuelan musicians tapping into the seasoned poise and elegance of the LA Phil musicians?

Whether the collaboration is energizing these groups or not, the LA Phil played the heck out of Mahler 9 Thursday night at Disney Hall. I would say that they held back nothing, but that's not quite accurate. When the music called for passion and fire, they pushed their energy and instruments to the extreme. When it called for the quietest restraint, they showed exquisite control.

Making all these calls, of course, was LA Phil Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, channeling so many forces of sound into a single point of energy -- and conducting without a score.

The mature Mahler, writing this music only months before his own death, entrusted the first gorgeous and gentle melody of Symphony No. 9 to -- who else? the second violins, who repeatedly land in the spotlight throughout this piece. It's a beautiful, fluid melody, sunshine with no shadow. The first violins enter on a soft pillow of sound. No way can this last! It wanders into the dark shadows, as it must in Mahler. We hear quotes from past Mahler Symphonies, building to a tragic climax, with so much sound -- then it coasts back into joy.

At times this movement seems like a taffy pull -- push, pull, push, pull, all in a big sticky mass.

Something one notices, when watching this symphony unfold live, is the dazzling array of instruments called upon to create even the smallest passing effect. For example, after an enormous climax of wailing sound, the music dwindles. Under Dudamel, it dwindles all the way to a silent pause, brought there by way of the lowest strings of the harp, the quietly noodling strings, the muted trombones and a muted tuba.

A muted tuba!? Have you ever seen a tuba mute? Enormous! If you had to take your tuba, tuba mute and yourself on a trip, you'd probably need three airplane seats. Mahler asks not just for tuba, but for muted tuba; not just for clarinets but also English horn; not just one, but two sets of timpani, plus cowbells, tam-tam and glockenspiel. Not one harp, but two.

And what the heck? We give it to him! This is art!

I noticed that Dudamel carefully oversaw some well-shaped violin lines -- swelling, full and movie-score-ish. Martin Chalifour was on his game, with the concertmaster solos striking just the right amount of color and style.

Dudamel was mesmerizing in the second movement - a dance in three, full of abrupt tempo and mood changes. He pushed, hopped, waved, gave high cues and low ones. Mahler labels this movement a "comfortable ländler," and on Thursday Dudamel illustrated a contrast between the rustic, stamping variety and the elegant parlor dance, which both animate this movement. The second violins have exuberant solo at the beginning, which the LA Phil's second fiddles played with just the right lusty abandon. The dance gets ever more vigorous, like a lunatic dancing himself into a frenzy, while the parlor dance interrupts, in its slower tempo, each time getting more harmonically adventurous and even neoclassical-sounding. The movement ends with the same little lick that began it, played in unison by a single contrabassoon and piccolo -- five octaves apart!

The third movement was intense and driving, with no relief, when it wasn't creeping quietly. The end was so busy, so many notes, just madness.

And then came the final movement, to tear my heart out. It out-"pathetiques" the "Pathetique" Symphony by Tchaikovsky (that composer's swan song), by a long shot.

It begins with unison violins, high on their lowest string (a rich sound this is, in the LA Phil), then settling to what sounds like a religious hymn. It starts to back off, when the strings burst forth with some of the most heart-wrenching music ever written. It pushes and pushes -- until it stops, turning to a very high sustained note, stilling and chilling. I think I'm going to call this device of Mahler's an "ice pedal." The movement continues to go between these extremes -- from cold stillness to full-bodied warmth of sound. During those outpourings of string sound, I could feel the vibrations in the wood under my feet. This movement is completely tonal, but the harmonic changes can be startling nonetheless; they work, but you just can't believe the music is going there -- so high, so extreme, turning on such a distantly related chromatic note.

Despite the over-the-top emotional nature of this music, Dudamel did not indulge in a lot of sentimental lingering; there is no need. Move through it, and it speaks for itself. In fact, it's even more heartbreaking, with the inevitability of motion. It can't hang on forever.

The ice pedal returns: high, cold and weak. The motion slows. The same melody continues, in still quietude, breaking into fragments. I could hear myself swallow. The music stops vibrating, sounds farther away. It hangs on. It feels a little scary, uncomfortable. Dying away, stopping. Dudamel stood for a very long time, in utter quiet. ("ba-ling!" went a text message in a distance corner) He kept standing.

Quiet, quiet.

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