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Laurie Niles

Los Angeles Philharmonic's Mahler Project: Mahler Symphony No. 7, with the SBSO

February 7, 2012 at 4:36 AM

The Seventh Symphony by Gustav Mahler may be the least-frequently played of his nine symphonies, but it also might be the most-famously quoted and imitated by composers.

For example: I'm pretty sure I heard the Starship Enterprise, a very brief appearance by Darth Vader, and even Harry Potter's owl, Hedwig.

The Mahler Project

I wondered, listening from my 21st century perspective, how this must have sounded to audiences of 1905 -- before the incredible century that brought us airplanes, space travel, Vulcans, George Lucas and J.K. Rowling. Then I realized, everything I was hearing materialized in Mahler's head first.

Whether he meant to reference space or not, Mahler's first movement certainly begins on the ground and then rockets very high, and the energetic Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, playing under conductor Gustavo Dudamel (conducting once again with no score) made it an exciting ride.

The Star Trek motif (skipping upward on three consecutive fourths, geek friends) begins about halfway through the first movement and leads into a shimmery ascent into some really high notes for violin, trumpet, and the rest. It climbs far past the point where it feels it should, then poof! Back to earth, with some of the lower instruments of the orchestra: trombones and lower strings.

Two movements of this symphony are called "Nachtmusik," or as we know from Mozart's famous quartet by the same name, "night music." The first of these, the second movement, is supposed to depict nature at night, a walk in the dark. It begins with horns and woodwinds - fluttering flutes and scurrying woodwinds, accelerating into a horn call. Listening carefully, a little shadow that one day grows into Darth Vader's theme appears, at least for a very brief time. Dudamel cued musicians with a look here and a raised eyebrow there during the more subdued passages. The oboes stood out with their animated and articulate section solos, and the principal cellos played a nice duet. More than once, a melody refuses to be a melody; it drifts off in another direction before it seems finished with what it has to say.

And now for Harry Potter's owl; I'm not talking about the chime-y celeste that plays Hedwig's theme; that's nowhere to be heard. Instead, I'm talking about the bat-out-of-hell violin nightmare (go to 0:42 in this video) that seems more about flying in circles so fast you lose your feathers. Mahler's runaway-train triplets sound a lot like this, traded around the string section so adeptly by the members of the SBSO. Hats off to principal violist Ismel Campos for making our over-sized cousin-of-the-violin look as easy to drive as a tricked-out-Audi -- his solos were fluid and well-placed.

The fourth-movement "Nachtmusik" seems more of a human drama than a woodland one, with more coherent lines and even a guitar and mandolin, played on this night by two members of the cello section. Before the concert, lecturer Marilyn McCoy mentioned that Symphony No. 7 starts with some experimental harmonies but gets more traditional with each movement. Indeed, the fifth and last movement is grand and final-sounding, harmonically non-complex and resolved. Nonetheless it's kind of a madhouse of sound, and Dudamel looked like a happy kid, playing with his favorite toy. Oboes were raised, every bow was moving, there were bells and brass: a swirl of major-key sound. In the end, it's just plain loud, bells up, bells going, a huge roar.

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