Sunday, February 5, 2012


This was a concert with "big" written all over it: one of the most excessive pieces of music, Symphony No. 8, from one of Western art music’s most excessive composers, Mahler, under the baton of a conductor with only a passing familiarity with the concept of understatement. Mahler calls for large forces in his penultimate symphony. The premiere he conducted in 1910 featured about 200 musicians and a chorus of nearly 800 and was billed by the promoter as a “Symphony of a Thousand”. Although the composer disliked the moniker, it stuck. And while modern performances don't typically grow to quite this size, there’s still this impetus to pull out all the stops especially if there’s a grand occasion of some sort. The Los Angeles Philharmonic felt it had just that for the concluding weekend of its Mahler symphony cycle (or Project if you must) and music director Gustavo Dudamel led an enormous cast including both the orchestras he leads, the L.A. Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, eight vocal soloists and just around 800 choristers comprised of several local groups including the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus.

And that was just the beginning of the grandiosity. Leading up to this big show were performances of Mahler’s eight other completed symphonies that have been meet in the local press with the kind of uncritical hyperbole that would make even a Teen Beat editor blush. Even Norman Lebrecht, one of the few out-of-town journalists with any interest in covering part of the cycle, couldn’t resist pointing out how "historic" it’s all been in between the pre-concert lectures he was brought in to give. And while he is correct in the sense that as of this writing these performances are in the past, he is much farther off the mark in the sense that they might be important or memorable down the line.

And then there was the size and scope of the actual venue. When the show was first announced last year, the scheduled venue was TBA. At the time I feared that might turn out to be the Staples Center, but in a surprising act of restraint, it turned out to be the dilapidated Shrine Auditorium where the stage would be extended out into the auditorium to contain all the participants. And on the night of the show, the seriously understaffed and overwhelmed ushers struggled to get the sold out crowd corralled into their seats by anything approaching the start time in the crumbling auditorium that was mostly dark whether or not the house lights were on.

But as any lover of classical music will tell you size matters, and if you come to play, you better be prepared for the enormity of what you are about to face. So seeing Dudamel take the podium in front of an actual score, a position he's not been prone to take frequently here in L.A., suggested the weight and pressure of it all must certainly have been immense. The fact that he pulled off a solid, reasonable performance of this most optimistic of Mahler’s symphonies is a near miracle. There were moments of stirring beauty in the piece. The thundering conclusion to the Veni creator spiritus Part I nearly shook the hall with the full throttle chorus and organ. The richly textured strings in several sections of the work's second half could be stirring as well. And the powerful conclusion, where Mahler, through the eyes of Goethe’s Faust look heavenward, was imbued with a sense of community spirit with so many voices on stage.

But transcendence, though strongly suggested, was not to actually be had, and the buckling effect of the evening’s weight couldn’t be ignored. The acoustics in The Shrine are horrible and both the soloists and even the large chorus could sometimes sound oddly absent. Woodwinds and strings would vanish without notice despite scores of players sawing and blowing away. You could see them playing on two giant screens on either side of the stage, which created the effect of being at The Hollywood Bowl without the amplification. Only the organ was consistently present throughout. Of the many soloists, only the superb soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, baritone Brian Mulligan, and bass Alexander Vinogradov survived the chipped and worn sound baffle of an auditorium providing three of the evening's true highlights. And, of course, there was Dudamel himself. As with the cycle to date, he continued to match moments of beautiful phrasing and tenderness with an equal number of confused, disoriented ones. There were rocky moments throughout the Part I and at the start of Part II where the focus waned and the massive musical forces seemed to wander off on their own accord. This was not a conductor in charge of monumental forces as much as one struggling to keep things from derailing under their own power. Which certainly has a drama to it. And, given that Dudamel succeeded in harnessing the forces as often as he didn't, it made for something entertaining if not always profound. But don't take my word for it, everyone except the choristers is headed to Venezuela next week where they'll repeat the cycle culminating in another live theater broadcast this time of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 from Caracas on February 18.

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