"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.
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