Monday, January 23, 2012
Second Coming (and Going)
On Sunday the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela joined Gustavo Dudamel on the stage of the Walt Disney Concert Hall for their first appearance as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s ongoing Mahler Cycle. It’s the orchestra’s first appearance here since 2007 when they performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 under Dudamel with pretty dicey results. Now they are back without the “Youth” in their name anymore, the orchestra is still composed of players aged 18-28, and a lot more Mahler under their belts in all sorts of international venues. They played Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 on Sunday, a work they played during last year’s BBC Proms to very mixed reviews. It’s been very popular for people who write music criticism to write about the SBSOV players as having special insight into this work. The idea being that a resurrection after death is somehow akin to the “El Sistema” backstory that has been a cornerstone of the publicity around the orchestra. Western art music saves the poor children of South America just as faith and religion promise life beyond earthly suffering. As to whether or not any of the orchestra’s players relate to such a proposition, I wouldn’t know. But clearly there are audiences around the world who find the idea alluring. Of course, you could also just see it as a bunch of 20-year-olds sharing their take on one of the great works about death and the afterlife.
In either event, the excesses that plague Dudamel’s conducting were back to the fore on Sunday with an orchestra apparently much less inclined to moderate them. How so much energy and emotional playing can result in music so empty of dramatic tension is a mystery to me. There are some admirable moments. Dudamel got a wonderful performance from the Los Angeles Master Chorale alongside soloists Christianne Stotijn and Miah Persson in the finale of the evening. But this moment like so many others felt disconnected from the whole. Dudamel continues to get bogged down with over-slow pacing, particularly in the second movement, and allows passages to too easily separate from one another. The motion grinds to a dead stop over and over, dissipating the overall effect and dramatic line again and again. Now it should be said that Mahler was not against excesses on the whole. He certainly called for as many strings as possible, and with the SBSOV that is what you get to the point that during the performance a bass player lost his instrument’s footing near the edge of the very cramped stage. But having a lot of players, and controlling their sound are two very different issues and many of the biggest moments from the orchestra sounded sloppy and unfocused more due to the sheer number of players than anything else.
But even in L.A. size matters and the big finish got the enthusiastic response it commanded with a big ovation stretching on and on for many minutes. As throughout their entire history both live and on stage, the quality of the actual performances of the SBSOV under Dudamel rarely correlate to the crowds response. The relationship seems to be based more on energy and enthusiasm. The more dramatic and overstated the performance, the more dramatic and overstated the response. But things work like this in the modern world more and more; why should classical music be any different?