Saturday, January 21, 2012

First and Ten

The more things change, the more they stay the same. On Thursday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and music director Gustavo Dudamel continued their <;a href="">Mahler cycle (or “Project” if you’re prone to marketing jargon) by covering familiar territory. The main course on the program was Mahler’s Symphony No.1, a favorite of Dudamel’s. Ironically, though, it’s not a work that he’s conducted particularly well in its previous outings here at least. Most notably was the symphony on the bill for the gala opening performance of his tenure as music director in Los Angeles, which was preserved on video. As you may recall, it was artistically disastrous, though the PR machine built up around him bowled over any objections from those who were really listening. Two years later the prospect of its return was not inspiring.

But two years is a long time, and Dudamel’s work with the orchestra has clearly started to pay off as evidenced by what was heard on Thursday. It’s by no means a deep or mature interpretation, but it was undoubtedly a reasonable and at turns quite reasonable one. Many of the same mannerisms are still present – the exaggerated tempi, the obsessive focus on maximizing every little detail at the expense of the whole, and so on. Again the first two movements bogged down occasionally over this preoccupation. But these issues were far less pronounced and the sense of motion through the piece was more intact. Of course, many of those small moments sounded wonderful and the third movement came off without any drag. Dudamel can always sell the big finish, and the finale was as heroic as you could wish for.

As the conductor himself noted, this is usually the point at which the concert would end. (And in fact did so during the inexplicably popular “Casual Friday” performance where you pay the same ticket price for less music with a side of chat, but go figure.) But as Dudamel told the audience before leaving the stage, there was more to come in the form of the Adagio from the unfinished Symphony No. 10, the final symphonic piece Mahler completed before his death. This was provided for contrast with Mahler’s earliest symphonic work, and while the idea may have been a little obvious, the execution was something else entirely. The increasingly lush strings of the L.A. Philharmonic poured themselves into this performance with Dudamel delivering what he had promised – a movement that connected Mahler to the musical revolutions of the 20th Century. Here the Wagnerian overtones were crystal clear and the second Viennese school was clearly in sight with a sound bordering on the dissonant and reorganized. The youthful excesses of both the music and the conducting of the first were gone and replaced with something far more cohesive and impressive. I’ll take more of this Dudamel, please. All this raises expectations for the later symphonies Dudamel will conduct with the L.A. Phil including the 6th next weekend and the 9th after that. You’ve got one more chance to hear this tidbit tonight before the Bolivar players take over the show with the 2nd on Sunday.

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