Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Third Degree

As much as I love the sound of my own voice, I find that even I can tolerate opinions other than my own once in a while. It’s a sign of good breeding. So following Sunday’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, I decided to take a pass on the next couple of collaborations of these particular artistic forces and invited someone else to chip in here at Out West Arts for a change. So, give a big hello to conductor and music critic Matthew Martinez who stepped into the breech for Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in the current cycle and contributes the following report.

Another opening, another show. So it goes in the jam-packed “Mahler Project.” Less than 48 hours removed from an emotionally exhausting Resurrection Symphony, the 150-plus players of the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela filled in every suitable inch of the Disney Hall platform to take on Gustav Mahler’s even longer subsequent work, the Third Symphony, for only one performance. Under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, the players were joined by the Women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and mezzo-soprano soloist Christianne Stotijn. While there were some stunning moments, the performance was often oddly detached, and even academic. Perhaps it was the grueling schedule. In any case, the capacity audience (many of whom felt compelled to clap after each of the first three movements), responded with a loud ovation. Some, however, seemed a bit dazed and were undoubtedly asking, “What was the point?” Unfortunately, this question wasn’t answered on Tuesday night, but some enjoyable moments and beautiful playing offered some glimpses into the majesty of the longest symphony in the repertoire.

After Mahler attempted to answer the questions of death and the after-life in his Second Symphony, he felt compelled to look closer at this life and all that shapes it: nature. In some ways, Mahler’s dramatic strengths are less obvious in this piece than in his other long works. The over-the-top thunderous cries of the Second and Eighth, are replaced by a nobler, more refined language. The constant intrusions by solo instruments can seem devoid of meaning if not given strong purpose. Unfortunately, this was common in the first three movements on Tuesday night. Rather than providing the propulsion for such expansive canvases, they seemed to interrupt rather than motivate. It made for a first movement that sagged and wandered, not due to slowness of tempo, but rather lack of direction and definition. Indeed, the most promising development was a moderation of tempo by the Maestro. There were certainly break-neck accelerandos, but overall, tempos were comfortable and buoyant. Dudamel conducted in a clear pattern and often took on the role of traffic cop, making sure that it was clear where the barlines and entrances were. In a way, this was remarkably refreshing.

Such clarity and moderation brought out the best in the players. The solo flugelhorn sweetly sang from the highest rear balcony in the hall and, while not perfectly in sync with the onstage forces, it was effective. Indeed, there were several fine solos throughout the evening. The first chair trumpet and oboist were exceptionally virtuosic and grand. Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn’s solo in the fourth movement was effectively sung. Her tender tone filled the hall and, while not particularly rich, was satisfying in its authority. The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus sang skillfully, but with a slightly thin tone as their boy-sopranos were significantly outnumbered. The Women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale were exemplary as usual, singing with an appreciated dramatic playfulness of text that played well off of Stotijn’s lines. The finest moment of the night belonged to the Venezuelans, however, as Dudamel led a masterful beginning to the final movement, Langsam. The tempo was appropriately slow, but pulsed with a constant vitality. The playing was controlled, beautiful, and blossomed with a sustained energy that spoke naturally without artifice. It was one of the few extended passages where Mahler ascended with purpose. The music soared because it had to. While they were not quite able to sustain it for the final thirty minutes, it was still affirming. For Dudamel and the Venezuelans, it was an admirable step in the right direction.

— Matthew Martinez

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