Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Sixth Sense

The Los Angeles Philharmonic reached the two-thirds point in the local run of its Mahler cycle, or “Project” for those so inclined, on Thursday. And after some time off for good behavior this week, it was back in the saddle for me. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s Symphony No.6 – the “Tragic” one. Mahler’s subtitle for this symphony of course turned somewhat prophetic for him personally in the year following its premiere, and given music director Gustavo Dudamel’s track record of conducting Mahler’s works, it certainly ran the risk of predicting this evening’s performance quality as well. As the symphony numbers in this series get higher, the works get progressively more challenging in terms of content. Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic have been doing fairly well so far in the cycle with solid performances of Symphonies 1, 4, and the Adagio from the 10th. But Dudamel appeared to be running out of steam on Thursday. Certainly not in any physical sense – he appeared hearty and hale as always. But the small cracks in the interpretive façade from earlier on are starting to expand as the cycle goes on.

Dudamel, as is his wont, conducted the score from memory. And things got off to a great start. The strings poured out rich beautiful wound in well coordinated attacks on the two contrasting themes in the early part of the first movement. I was sorry to hear it end and the interruption of late comers clattering in between the first two movements was a disappointing punctuation mark on the music. Dudamel went with the original ordering of the next two movements going on with the Andante moderato which was reserved and frequently lovely. But this is a big siymphony with a lot of angst-ridden themes in it, and Dudamel began to falter on entering the Scherzo. Things turned listless at this point. Not that there wasn’t passionate, committed playing from the orchestra members, but the various elements in the score became increasingly disorganized from one another. This lack of focus and overall direction spilled over into the forth movement which started off sounding uncertain as well. By the time the hammer let lose in the home stretch, things had pulled together rhythmically and again the orchestra’s sails seemed to catch the prevailing winds. But moments of muddiness continued to arise write into the final bars. The symphony ends with diminishing brass ad a large final crescendo that fades into darkness. It’s a profound and tortured moment and an opportunity for the kind of awed silence Dudamel has been cultivating in audiences here. But for some on Thursday he had not sealed the deal, and fervent applause immediately crushed the last bits of sound from the orchestra, a development the maestro looked none to happy about by his facial expression.

And I can certainly sympathize with him on that account. But this was not a performance or an audience that was entirely thrust into rapture by the end, and despite its many charms, continued to serve as a reminder of how much work there is left to do for Dudamel and this orchestra. There’s more Mahler ahead next week so stay tuned.

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