Musicians jump at the chance to play the music of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), whose nine gargantuan symphonies pushed Romantic music into modern times. Born in the tiny Bohemian town of Kaliste (now in the Czech Republic), Mahler began playing the piano when he was four and graduated from Vienna Conservatory. He was more famous his lifetime as a conductor than as a composer -- he conducted the Vienna Opera, then late in his life, the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.
Gustav Mahler's philosophy on the symphony was all-encompassing: he once said, "A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything." His symphonies tend to be unrelenting in sound and emotion, lengthy, and scored for a staggering number of of musicians, both instrumental and vocal. The Eighth Symphony is called "Symphony of 1,000" because it literally calls for 1,000 musicians on stage! During his time, audiences found Mahler's epic and highly emotional nine symphonies puzzling and even disturbing, and, as Mahler was Jewish, his works were banned by the Nazis during the 1930s. But during the mid-20th century, Mahler's music underwent a major revival, championed by conductors such as Leonard Bernstein. Not only does Mahler's music speak well to listeners of today, it is actually familiar -- so much has been either quoted or imitated on movie soundtracks.
The Mahler Project is a big challenge, to say the least: Venezuelan-born conductor Gustavo Dudamel, 31, is conducting all nine Mahler symphonies (plus the unfinished 10th), with performances alternating between two orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. The orchestras will play all the symphonies in Los Angeles during January and early February 2012, then both orchestras will travel to Caracas, Venezuela, to do it again in February.
Violinist.com editor Laurie Niles has been attending all the Mahler Project concerts in Los Angeles -- and her son, Brian, has performed in two of the symphonies as part of the Los Angeles Children's Chorus. Here is her coverage of the performance of these symphonies, including interviews, reviews and thoughts from the her perspective as a violinist who also has played many of these works. Enjoy!By Laurie Niles
Many years ago, a friend gave me a gift: it was a boxed set of all the Mahler Symphonies on CD.
My jaw dropped to the floor. It wasn't because of my friend's thoughtfulness and generosity, though that was considerable.
It was because I could not believe that all 10 of these epic symphonies -- hours of music that capture worlds within them, a life's output from a genius composer, performances involving up to 1,000 musicians -- could be reduced to a five-inch cube that fit in my hand. Not only did it seem impossible, it even seemed wrong!
The Los Angeles Philharmonic's Mahler Project -- "nine symphonies, five weeks, two orchestras, one conductor" -- seems more appropriate in its scale. The one conductor is Gustavo Dudamel, who will celebrate his 31st birthday on Jan. 26th by conducting Mahler 5.
I've committed to attending the entire cycle over the next month, which takes place mostly at LA's Disney Hall, although for Mahler 8 ("Symphony of 1,000" which will feature both the LA Phil and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, as well as 16 choirs) the forces are so great that the concert will be held at the larger Shrine Auditorium.
On Friday I spoke to LA Phil Concertmaster Martin Chalifour about the joys and challenges of this formidable project.
It's not the first time the LA Phil has played Mahler with Dudamel, who is in his third year as Conductor and Music Director of the orchestra. Mahler 1 is one of the first pieces the LA Phil played with him.
"Actually, he's quite elegant with (Mahler)," Martin said of Dudamel. "He's very respectful of the score, and he doesn't try to make it sound like a 'Dudamel' piece. He studies things in great depth. He fools you because he has fun with it, but he knows every detail. And what's amazing, I have a feeling he's going to challenge himself and do several of them from memory, if not all of the whole cycle. So stay tuned!"
And there is plenty of detail -- and depth -- in the symphonies of Mahler.
"The basic feeling I come away with, after performing a Mahler symphony, is that you've gone through an entire life story, or an entire great book, and you are changed by that book, by that experience," Martin said Friday, before the first performance. "Each of those symphonies is like that, to a very different degree.... Basically, they are thought-altering experiences, each of these symphonies. You come away whistling a tune from a great Mozart or Schubert or Dvorak symphony, but that's not necessarily how you're going to feel after a Mahler symphony. You'll have fragments of music, but emotionally you'll feel different. The emotional impact it can have on people is so strong, that I would be afraid, almost, to go through the experience!" (He laughs.)
Good thing they're easing us into it.
"We're starting the cycle with Symphony No. 4, which is the lightest one, the most pastorale one," Martin said Friday. "That one seems a little bit different than the others. It's much more optimistic; it's sunnier, shorter."
The concertmaster plays a unique kind of solo in the second movement of the Fourth Symphony -- a rollicking tune written for "scordatura" violin, meaning that the tuning of the violin is altered.
"It's always intriguing when you have to tamper with how you tune the instrument," Martin said. "That's the first thing you ever learn on an instrument: how to tune it, or how to tell your parents to tune it!"
For Mahler 4, "the entire instrument needs to be tuned one whole-step above." So it's still in fifths, but instead of G-D-A-E, it's A-E-B-F#. It puts a lot of stress on the instrument.
"An E-string already usually feels like it can't take any more pressure, and you're tuning a whole-step above," Martin said. "It gives a different color to most instruments: it's a little more nasal, acerbic -- almost a sarcastic color.
"Initially, it's an extra logistic problem for people who have perfect pitch, like me," Martin said. "The first time you do it, it's very disorienting because you put your fingers down and definitely the wrong notes come out. A lot of people have to first learn the piece by ear and by geometry: is it second-finger high or low, when I start the passage? It's written the physical note that you play, so the real note does not appear on paper. So the real note -- it just sounds differently."
During the second movement, the concertmaster plays both a normally-tuned violin and the scordatura violin, sometimes with only a few seconds to switch. The solution is to use two violins, but it does pose some logistical challenges.
"For the last two times we've played this piece, I've used a simple hook that goes just under the music stand, on the stem of the music stand. It hangs freely, but it doesn't bang against the stand because of the shoulder pad. It works very well to protect it. The conductor, even if he tried, could not really brush his legs against this," Martin said. "So for the brief time that the Stradivarius is on the hook, we're playing and nobody comes near it anyway. It is definitely solid-as-can-be, protected. (By the way, if you're curious about the hook, "It comes from Shar!")
Speaking of that Stradivarius... Martin currently plays the ex-Earl of Plymouth, ex-Kreisler Stradivarius from 1711, owned since 1965 by the LA Phil.
"This is the Strad that is the most prized possession of the Philharmonic," Martin said. "It's one of three Strad violins here, the one that is in perfect condition, from the Golden Period. It just turned 300, and it belonged to Fritz Kreisler, who fell in love with it and bought it immediately, when he saw how pristine it was.
He's been playing the instrument for only about a year and a half.
"I played on it my very first season, 17 years ago. To me, initially, it felt too much like a Vuillaume: very strong, but more difficult color changes to achieve." Martin said. "My approach to the instrument has changed enough since then that I wanted to try the Strad again, when it became available when someone retired. I changed my views on it and changed my way of playing with it. It's a very different, more robust instrument than the other one, than the smaller-sized one."
Playing the same instrument that Kreisler played, "it's incredible," Martin said. "It's an incredible privilege, and it makes you feel humble every day."
On Saturday I attended the first concert in the cycle, which featured Mahler 4. My son Brian, 11, will be among those singing in Mahler 8 and in Mahler 3, as part of the LA Children's Chorus. After so many rehearsals, his curiosity was up, so he attended Mahler 4 with me as well.
For me, Mahler 4 is an old friend: it's the first Mahler symphony I played (in college) and I have a particular recording I enjoy, with Kathleen Battle.
On Saturday, the program began with Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer," a four-song cycle with orchestra which predates all the symphonies but contains plenty of melodic material that Mahler uses later, particularly in the Symphony No. 1 (which is next in the Mahler Project, on Friday).
Baritone Thomas Hampson captured the frequent mood swings in these songs, for which Mahler wrote both music and text while in his 20s, lovesick over the soprano Johanna Richter. The basic gist: How can the birds sing, when what I love can never bloom for me? A translation of the German words was projected on a small screen overhead. These songs have quite a musical range, and Hampson drew a broad range of colors from his easy baritone voice: from a gorgeous low and slow pianissimo to the ringy-dingy second song that requires a high register, and more. If you like Mahler 1 you should become familiar with this song cycle as its genesis.
And then... the familiar sleighbells that begin the Fourth Symphony. In the first movement, I noticed, as never before, all the intricate lines the cellos had -- Dudamel seemed to make a space for that to happen. Overall, the lower strings rocked.
As predicted by Martin, Dudamel conducted with no score, and every subtlety of rhythm was crystal clear. The first movement ended with a wonderful, mad acceleration, from a dead stop to a complete frenzy -- so fast!
Martin played that scordatura violin solo with great energy. The movement feels like a ride on a lopsided vehicle, maybe something created by Dr. Seuss, with three wheels that are all different sizes, then in a big glissando it melts into a sultry summer afternoon, one of those long, yawning days of summer sunshine.
The third movement begins with stillness and suspension, and the way this orchestra played it, a bit icy at first and then warming. A beautiful oboe solo. There are several climaxes, gorgeously in-tune trumpets sounded the first one, with great clarity. The end of this movement is so dramatic, it's almost funny. Everything seems to lull into a sunset, a musical picture of serenity, when out of nowhere comes a crazy loud octave, with drums and brass and the kitchen sink. My 11-year-old companion actually turned to me, raised an eyebrow and made one of those "What the?" faces when this happened. It calms down and is then followed by such a weird modulation at the end, like lemon juice suddenly spurting out of the very mild candy you've been chewing.
Soprano Miah Persson stepped forward for the last movement, in which she sings a song that describes a child's view of what heaven must be -- it's one of my favorite pieces of music, and she sang it beautifully. The LA Phil took this at a fairly brisk tempo, and I enjoyed being able to read the subtitles.
I realized that here, I had my own child next to me. As Persson sang, my young companion yanked my sleeve to observe that the children's chorus in Mahler 3 has a lot of the same note patterns. Okay, but you can't start singing!
As we drove home, Brian said that he'd been a little concerned that the whole song was going to be about the food in heaven, as it did go on and on about the bread, asparagus, green beans, apples, pears, grapes...
"And you know," he said, with a grin and some sacrilegious pleasure, "the McDonald's burgers, the Del Taco, Doritos..."
"...the Twinkies, Milk Duds, microwave popcorn," I said, laughing. "But you heard the end of the song, that's my favorite part. The best part of heaven..."
"Is the music!"
"Mahler sang the last rueful songs of nineteenth-century romanticism," said conductor Leonard Bernstein, and they continue to speak to us today, from the vantage of the 21st century.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic started its first season with Gustavo Dudamel with a performance of Mahler's First Symphony in 2009, and on Friday they returned to the piece as part of The Mahler Project, in which Dudamel will direct the LA Phil and Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in all 9 Mahler Symphonies over a period of five weeks.
I'm not sure how I feel about "Casual Friday" concerts, with the orchestra sporting a wide-ranging assemblage of plaid, solid, flannel, jeans, khakis, etc. The audience didn't look, or act a whole lot different (clearly no one wants clapping between movements, even when we're all supposed to be feeling "casual.") Frankly, when the music is this good, they could all be wearing feathered chicken costumes and I would forget by the second bar!
But I digress: I did enjoy the "Casual Friday" tradition of having an orchestra member introduce the work at hand. On Friday, Barry Gold, who has played in the LA Phil's cello section for 20 years, introduced Mahler's First Symphony with some well-chosen food for thought. He described the music being "the greatest challenge imaginable, and by the end of a performance, it can be quite transporting."
Apparently the symphonies of Mahler were not greatly appreciated in his own life time, as is so often the case with forward-thinking composers, Gold said. Mahler wrote, in a 1902 letter to his wife, Alma, that "my time will come. If only I could conduct my symphonies 50 years after my death!"
It was a prophetic idea: one of the biggest Mahler champions, Leonard Bernstein, brought Mahler's symphonies to the fore, just about a half-century after his death, said Gold. Bernstein also penned an essay, well worth reading, and called it, His Time Has Come.
The First Symphony begins with an "A" harmonic, static and tightrope high. For Friday's performance, I sat over stage right, where I could see Gustavo Dudamel, dressed in jeans and a black shirt and not using a score -- from about the same angle as the violins. It's a tricky and rather treacherous beginning, with little outbursts from offstage trumpets and chirping woodwinds. Dudamel kept things contained, even after the icy "A" melted into a warm melody from the cellos, then an outburst of pure joy, such an outburst, with Dudamel taking it so fast!
Farther into the first movement, Dudamel smiled as he pulled a random viola pizzicato out of the texture -- a little bit of wit that often stays hidden. He seemed to uncover and polish up all kinds of such gems in this rather dense music. I found myself able to see the thread, passed from cello to viola section, etc. With so much going on, it's often hard to see the one thing that is meant by it all, and Dudamel excels in cutting through to that.
Likewise, the climaxes throughout the symphony were -- climactic! If the LA Phil is a Ferrari, Dudamel isn't reluctant to take it all the way up to 185 miles an hour -- my arms were burning, just watching the fiddles working so hard. Dudamel clearly enjoyed it -- wearing a wild smile while joy-riding this fast, well-oiled machine.
The second movement is a dance in three, a rather heavy-footed version of an Austrian "Ländler," with the strings frequently sliding into the first beat. Dudamel started the dance deliberately before settling into a tempo, and in fact, the whole movement had a changing and malleable tempo. As Gold noted at the beginning, Mahler wrote no metronome markings in his scores -- indeed! A horn call launches the music into an even soupier, soaring melody, which then returns to the Ländler.
A comic that recently made the rounds on the Internet shows a flow chart to help you identify which Mahler symphony you just heard. The dead giveaway for Mahler 1: "Do you ever remember thinking, this sounds like "Frere Jacques"?
It sounds like that because movement three is based on both "Frere Jacque," (or in Austria, "Brother Martin") and a klezmer-sounding, Bohemian street melody. The juxtaposition of these two kinds of music has given rise to speculation about Mahler's complex and conflicted feelings toward his own Jewish background and the Catholic culture that surrounded him.
The movement begins with "bim, baum, bim, baum" in the timpani, like footsteps on "do" and "sol," and the "Frere Jacque" melody is played by a single bass (Principal bassist Dennis Trembly, I believe, on Friday) -- well done. Somewhere in the middle of the movement Frere Jacque quits plodding and a harp ushers in a timeless, heavenly shaft of light. At this point my daughter laid her head on my shoulder and fell asleep. I don't think this is an entirely inappropriate reaction to such music, either -- if it gives a stressed-out teenager (who attended the concert despite being in the middle of intense study for final exams) a few moments of peace, then so be it.
But as we know, peace is never long-lived in Mahler. The plodding begins again, this time with more resolve and a brighter tempo. Here the trumpets shone, weaving in and out of one another's melody. The music took a bit of a sarcastic tone, but never to the point of sneering, which I've heard in other interpretations.
The fourth movement began with a boom (anyone napping would be awake now!) and a clash and a swirl of notes everywhere. It spins into a quiet line that is sustained for some time in the violins, and here I must note that we had the opportunity to witness 30 amazing G strings. Giggle if you must, but please try to imagine an entire violin section of fine-quality fiddles -- and fiddlers -- that still sing when pushing their lowest string to the highest notes. The effect is sort of an insistent wailing. The end was a joyous, manic climax, galloping to the end. The horns all stood, as if to show us the towering nature of this music, with all forces at full blow.
Without hesitation came a full-house, standing ovation, including the 60 young members of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, who'd been sitting at the back of the stage to observe and who will perform Mahler 2, 3, 5, 7 and 8. The ovation lasted more than five minutes.
Here is an excerpt from the Casual Friday "Talk Back" with the conductor, which followed the concert.
I have to confess that for the first part of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, ("Resurrection") at Disney Hall Sunday night, I was counting people on stage.
That's because the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela is one big group! The Venezuelan orchestra came to Los Angeles to share the privilege -- or burden -- or gargantuan task -- of playing all nine completed Mahler Symphonies over the next few weeks for The Mahler Project with conductor Gustavo Dudamel. While LA Phil has performed or will perform symphonies 1, 4, 6, 8, 9 (and the unfinished 10), The Simón Bolívar orchestra will play 2, 3, 5, 7 and share the stage with LA Phil for 8 -- the "Symphony of 1,000," in which literally 1,000 musicians will share the stage.
The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra is the premiere orchestra of El Sistema, the huge, government-funded music program in Venezuela that trained LA Phil conductor Gustavo Dudamel and has been making waves in the music-education community all over the world in recent years.
They may not have had their full complement onstage for Symphony No. 2, but it was close. The program listed 175 musicians in the orchestra, and the numbers seemed to correspond; for example, the program listed 25 first violins, and indeed, on Sunday there were 25 first violins. Of the 175-some musicians on stage, 24 were women. Another friend of mine must have felt the urge to count as well, because she noted that "22 of the women were wearing sleeveless dresses!" Well, they looked nice, and remember, this is a youth orchestra. The musicians are all age 18 to 28.
With so American orchestras coping with budget cuts by cutting musicians from orchestras, here's a reminder of why it pays to think big: there's power in numbers. That power was on display all night: from the first vigorous tremolo in the strings that begins the symphony, to the presence those numbers brought to the quietest pianissimo. Joining the orchestra were 100 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, as well as soprano Miah Persson and mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn.
With so many on stage, there were still standouts in this crowd; most notably for me, the beautiful, flowing flute solos in the first and fourth movements played by Katherine Rivas, and also excellent piccolo solos (I could not locate the name of the piccolo player in the program).
Mahler's second symphony explores death -- for Mahler, the death of the hero he created in his first symphony; and then it explores redemption and the resurrection of the spirit.
The first movement is full of note patterns that creep downward, as well as a fugue whose subject seems almost like a Dies Irae, the well-known requiem chant, though not quite. The short col legno section gave it menacing punch (think 50 violinists clap-clapping with the wood of their bows, instead of 30). All marches marched downward, and the movement ended in an emphatic chromatic scale that tumbled down into three very final-sounding pizzicati: Pluck. Pluck. Pluck.
Mahler apparently instructed that the orchestra observe a full five-minute silence after the first movement, as the composer wrote it in isolation from the rest of the symphony. For this performance, the orchestra tuned in between, which seemed both practical and sufficiently observant of the request.
The second movement is polite and careful: "May I have this dance?" Here is where so many strings made for such a full and rich piano -- quiet, but with presence. The dance had its contrast with a more complex section in triplets -- something a little more mathematical-sounding. The dance, a ländler, kept coming back, very restrained, like a quiet dance in the night. Its last iteration, a gentle dance in pizzicato, was accompanied for me by my neighbor's cell phone. NO! Yes, it happened. Nothing like the scandal in New York, but it certainly broke my reverie!
The third movement sounded like a careening ride through a fun house -- a dark fun house full of spooky-weird images. Toward the end was a giant, 175-member full-orchestra blast, which came to its height and then floated down, suspended as though a parachute had opened and was gently carrying the musical line downward.
Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn began the fourth movement singing alone -- how the small moments contrasted with the giant ones! Her voice ascended beautifully.
Midway through the last movement came my favorite spot, when 200 voices in the LA Master Chorale entered, full and low, almost unexpected, singing a-cappella, "Rise again, yes, rise again, will you my dust, after a brief rest..." Miah Persson's soprano pierces through all-- everything soars. It's one of the most beautiful moments in all of Mahler.
The entire last movement is all uplift: notes ascend, the choir sings, "rise again, yes rise again ...prepare yourself to live." Even the entrance of the organist had a feeling of ascension at Disney Hall, taking his seat an alcove above both the choir and orchestra. The music grows and ascends, the pipes sound, the violinists reach around, nearly to the end of their fingerboards to play ever higher and higher.
I wasn't the only one lifted. The audience stood, clapping for at least 10 minutes, continuing after the house lights came on, continuing even as the musicians finally walked off the stage.
Mahler's Symphony No. 3 is longest of all the Mahler symphonies; on Tuesday night, the six-movement symphony lasted nearly two hours (the first movement alone was 45 minutes). It is scored for a huge orchestra and demands much of the brass section, with extended solos for trombone and French horn. It also requires a well-trained children's choir, as well as an adult female choir and a mezzo-soprano soloist.
These considerable demands may be one of the reasons why it played less often than the other symphonies; or why sometimes its movements are played on their own. Certainly I've not heard this piece as much as I've heard the other Mahler symphonies. I do believe American union musicians (I'm one of them) would have to seek an exception from their rules in order to stay on stage for two hours straight.
On Tuesday, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela performed this symphony, along with members of the Los Angeles Master's Chorale and mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn. My 11-year-old son was among 40 (epically patient) children from the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, directed by Anne Tomlinson, singing the "Bimm Bamm" bell part in the fifth movement -- which they performed with clarity, pitch-perfection and professionalism (if I do say so myself). Seriously, I was thrilled that these children from my community in Los Angeles (another young chorister was one of my longtime violin students) were sharing the stage with such fine young musicians from another continent, and that their efforts together, under Gustavo Dudamel, were making this extraordinary symphony come alive for this moment in time.
Another interesting revelation about his symphony came beforehand, with a pre-concert talk by British author Norman Lebrecht, whose sociological take on Mahler is expressed in his book Why Mahler? He promised the packed audience that he would not talk about Mahler 3, but instead he would talk about racism, social conflict, relationship breakdown, alienation, depression and premonitions of war -- because Mahler 3 holds all of that in its opening bars.
Lebrecht drew a line between the First Symphony by Brahms, a composer worshiped in Germany as the heir apparent to Beethoven, to the Third Symphony by Mahler, a German Jew barred from so much of normal life because of his religion. Lebrecht said that German audiences often don't hear the connection, and at first I didn't, either. But listen for just a few seconds to each: Brahms 1, last movement (it's all cued to the right part); and then the beginning of Mahler 3. Both composers, Lebrecht said, were using a nationalist student song, which translates, "I have given myself, heart and hand, to thee … my German fatherland." While Brahms sets it in loving triumph, Mahler makes it a menace. It's there, and once I heard that resemblance, I continued to hear it all night as the symphony unfolded.
Indeed, the symphony began with that rather ominous horn call, which quiets into a low, toneless drumbeat -- a heartbeat of dread, not quite steady. A tremolo in the strings sounded downright tremulous -- the masses shaking in their boots while the trumpets sounded the call. It's all pretty dark and unsettled.
Last week, LA Phil Concertmaster Martin Chalifour predicted that Dudamel just might conduct every Mahler symphony without a score, and so far he has been correct: on Tuesday Dudamel conducted Mahler 3 without a score.
Principal trombonist (Pedro Carrero?) carried his own in several extended solos, which turned in many directions musically and required quite a range of pitch. He captured the lament and nailed the very low notes. The celli and bass also showed their stuff as a section, with great passagework. The ending of this very long movement was simply too huge for the audience to resist applauding, so there was much clapping, then a short break. Both choirs, neither which had yet sung, stood for a 8:45 p.m. stretch while the orchestra tuned.
The second movement, originally conceived as "what the flowers in the meadow tell me," sounds like a soupy movie score at times, and at other times a roadrunner version of Mahler's greatest hits (for example, we get a preview here of the last movement of Mahler 4, in greatly condensed and accelerated form). Dudamel, always mesmerizing, nimbly negotiated this rather sunny collage of tempos and musical ideas.
"The creatures in the forest" were the original subjects for the third movement, which has a familiar melody, woven with the deferred-beat effect of the slurs. A sweet little melody grows unwieldy, grows enormous -- then it jumps back into its original form. Or, sometimes it jumps out of the closet as a monster of itself. Then -- where is that horn coming from? A posthorn solo is played off stage -- a powerful disembodied effect. Again, the program was not completely clear about who played this major solo, and certainly this person deserved to be credited. It was full of beauty and purity -- and just a few minor falters. In fact, a number of wobbles and falters in the horns throughout the night made me wonder if it's a bit of a strain to perform Mahler 2, then 3, then 5, all within the course of five days. There's a difference between a fault caused by incompetence and one caused by exhaustion, and I was certainly not hearing incompetence.
Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn was the star for the fourth movement, which was about the night; and then the choirs arose for the fifth movement, with the children imitating bells under a women's choir. I wanted this movement to last longer!
The sixth movement moves in a more straightforward way, like a pool of shifting light; all forces unite in a slow-motion climax -- and then the same thing happens again. It ends and ends and ends! And then finally, it ends.
Perhaps Gustavo Dudamel should have his own entry in the Guinness Book of World Records: Youngest Conductor to Conduct All 10 Mahler Symphonies (by Memory) -- a feat he will complete with the performances of Symphonies 7, 8 and 9 over the next week.
Maestro Dudamel turned 31 last Thursday, (they did play him a birthday tune during rehearsal) and a very large party indeed turned up on stage and off for his performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 5, with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, as part of The Mahler Project.
Before the concert, I noticed a stack of CDs at the front of the Disney Hall gift store -- they were a recording of Dudamel conducting this same piece with the Simón Bolívar orchestra in 2007. Undoubtedly there is turnover in a youth orchestra, even one with ages spanning 18 to 28, but during the performance I sensed a certain sure footing with this piece, a bit more free and confident than the Mahler 3 I'd seen them perform a few nights before. Energy, fire, exertion -- no hesitation on this night. They seemed to share a deep communication; I had the feeling that every nod from Dudamel referenced a hundred well-discussed and rehearsed moments.
Mahler 5 opens with a trumpet call and then settles into the first movement's funeral march. Overall, though, the work is fairly bright, and this performance sizzled with energy -- even during the smallest moments. During the third-movement Scherzo, there is a moment of utter silence -- with some 175 people onstage, it makes for a weighty quiet. From this nothingness blooms a rollicking dance, which pushes to a pinnacle of drama and noise.
After all the bombast, the symphony turned intimate in the Adagietto -- which is likely to sound familiar even if you've never heard it. It has been used in popular culture -- in the film Death in Venice and at John F. Kennedy's funeral. The music has been imitated often, and certainly it influenced later composers. Compare it, for example, to Barber's Adagio for Strings.
The Adagietto began like still water, with the harp making gentle ripples against the suspended strings. It's shimmering and beautiful, but not quite warm, not even when the violins enter with their aching melody. Dudamel kept it restrained, with the occasional brief and bright ray of sun, which then was quickly internalized. Even when reined in, the great energy of this orchestra was always at the door. The movement came to an exquisite ending -- no simple crescendo from piano to forte, imagine instead a crescendo that ascends about 45 steps of volume, followed by an equally profound denouement. Beautifully done.
To begin the final movement, Dudamel cued the horn with his eyebrows. It's a swirling and playful movement, with a kind of happy fugue in the strings, which they played with great accuracy. And once again, the audience was on its feet for a good 10 minutes, with several audience members waving colorful "Venezuela" jackets for good measure.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Being in the middle of Mahler's Symphony No. 8, with all the sound surrounding me, took me to a whole new world! It really is an honor. I mean, how often are you going to be able to perform "The Symphony of a Thousand" with 1,000 people? I am age 11, and part of one of the children's choirs that get to perform this piece. My particular choir is the Los Angeles Children's Chorus.
They are one of three children's choirs who performed. Apart from the 800 or so singers in this finale of The Mahler Project, there were also around 200 orchestra members, both from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.
When there is the LA Phil, there usually is Gustavo Dudamel, who is very talented and knows what the decisions are, and when to make them. In the rehearsal at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he said to the choir, "I started to study music when I was four. I started with the trombone, but, my arms! Then I moved to the trumpet, but my mouth hurt. Eventually, I moved to the violin, and auditioned for a choir my friends were a part of, and didn't get in. But the conductor was my teacher, and she never let me sink and stop music. She will pay!" Everyone laughed.
Now, he didn't just say funny things, all rehearsal. He had a LOAD to get done, and to think, now he is going to pack it up, and go down to Venezuela to do all of the Symphonies again! Dudamel conducted all the Mahler symphonies with such emotion and understanding, bringing them to life and allowing you to enjoy it the way it was supposed to be heard. Being able to sing in Mahler 3, as well as Mahler 8, is one of the best experiences in my life, and one that I will never forget.
- Brian Niles (son of Laurie Niles)
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.
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.
"Is Mahler 8 now your favorite Mahler symphony?" asked my son, Brian, 11, after performing Saturday night with 1,027 people on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium, including conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, seven soloists and 16 choirs.
I don't know about mine, but I'm pretty sure it's his favorite symphony now. He and his friends in the Los Angeles Children's Chorus spent some 40 hours in the week before the concert, rehearsing and performing this piece. The kids started learning their parts months ago, with the help of their director Anne Tomlinson.
The first movement is in Latin, the second movement is in German, but first they learned it all in solfege. They attended rehearsals at six different venues all over town, arranged their schoolwork around rehearsals, rode in carpools and generally worked very hard. After the concert, they were downright euphoric.
Sitting among 4,700 audience members, realizing that many of them were in some way related to the 1,000+ people on stage for this event, I had a little revelation about how you attract a crowd to a concert, and about how you create a fan of symphonic music. It's quite simple -- and profoundly complex: ask 1,000 to share the stage, then invite everyone involved to come to the concert.
In the audience I noticed parents of young singers; spouses and friends and children of older singers; music teachers; administrators from all the organizations, regular symphony-goers; and the list goes on. On the stage were 1,027 who will never forget the experience, and who will always feel a connection to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was a tremendous endeavor for every singer, every instrumentalist, for the 91 musicians who traveled here from Venezuela to play, for the music directors, for all those behind the scenes who booked all the venues, raised the money -- for the that lady who decided where every singer would stand, for the librarian... Good heavens, it boggles the mind!
But classical music isn't "easy," it never will be, and no marketing department can make it so. Do you want an audience? Do you want music in your community? You will have to work, and so will they, and then you'll get the most devoted audience you can find. Music brings together a community like nothing else, and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra director Gustavo Dudamel knows this.
Dudamel grew up as part of Venezuela's El Sistema, started in 1975 as a social program to help underprivileged youth. It now includes 125 youth orchestras as well as a system of music schools that teach 250,000 children. Though this was Dudamel's first time conducting the "Symphony of 1,000," as Mahler's 8th is called, it certainly was not his first time conducting a humongous orchestra.
How was the performance? Mahler 8 has only two movements. Based on the Latin hymn "Veni creator spiritus," the first movement blasts into being: organ, voices, brass, strings -- nearly all forces go full-forward from the first measure. Sitting on the ground floor, almost under the stage, I felt that a lot of the sound, and the diction, was flying over my head. It was hard to keep track of such a wash of noise.
I was relieved with the arrival of the second movement, which Mahler based on the closing scene of Goethe's "Faust." It builds more slowly, and I could better grasp the depth of volume created by all these voices and instruments. For example, there were about 45 violins -- it makes for such a deep quiet, when they play quietly, and then they can unleash so much power! Each section played well as one, even in this muddy hall. (No vibrations in these floors!)
I enjoyed the way the members of the LA Phil mixed with the members of the SBSOV -- young and old, male and female, Venezuelan and melting-pot Californian.
Musicians from both orchestras took leading roles for this performance: Martin Chalifour of the LA Phil was concertmaster, Moises Medina of the SBSOV was Principal Second Violin; Carrie Dennis of the LA Phil was Principal Viola; and Edgar Caldero of the SBSOV was Principal Cello.
As the second movement progressed passed the instrumental introduction, the choir entered quietly, syllable by syllable. I enjoyed the soloists most when they sang on their own; baritone Brian Mulligan was riveting; bass Alexander Vinogradov sang his heart out, with turbulent violins underneath; Burkhard Fritz's well-supported and beautiful voice hit the high notes during an extended solo.
The appearance of Swedish mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant, was so theatrical, alone in the dark balcony on the right, up-lit and glowing gold, like Tinkerbell without wings. As she sang the words, "rise up to higher spheres..." and I half-expected her to levitate!
From the stage, sopranos Julianna di Giacomo and Manuela Uhl sang Mahler's impossibly high notes, with the whole choir growing in volume behind, and everything rising. The choir burst forth in unison, backed by the organ. From the other balcony, a choir of brass instruments blasted, back on stage cymbals chimed, organ, trumpet -- so much sound!
The music stopped and the applause went on for 15 minutes. The person behind me said, "We pulled it off!" No doubt, thousands of people thought the same.
Violinist.com Editor Laurie Niles is in New York to cover the biennial event at The Juilliard School, including classes by Brian Lewis and Sarah Chang.
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