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Dudamel and LA Phil revel in multi-week 'Mahler' project

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2012, at 02:45PM
Courtesy of L.A. Phil

Gustavo Dudamel's "Mahler" project is going on now at the Disney Concert Hall Downtown.

Ah, youth! It knows no bounds. Ask Gustavo Dudamel. After all, he sees the world from his 30-year-old vantage. So why not devote three weeks to a beloved composer who died a century ago – in an event called “The Mahler Project?” And why not roll out all nine symphonies-plus?

No reason. Which means that’s exactly what the Los Angeles Philharmonic is doing right now at Disney Hall, thanks to the exuberance of its podium meister.

And that’s not all. Dudamel is also importing his Simon Bolivar Orchestra from Venezuela for some of the business. Together with our resident band they’ll decamp to Shrine Auditorium for the “Symphony of a Thousand” (No. 8) Mahler’s most grandiose, among his great, heaven-reaching epics.

Yes, indeed, it’s a project. Most music lovers today can identify Mahler as the composer of our time. He mirrored 20th-century angst and conjured an innocence waiting to be pierced by a noisy sneering at life’s cruel realities – all of it scored in an overwhelming orchestral 3D.

Call Mahler the one who brought his palpable sensitivity full-bore to the music palette. He wore his soul on his sleeve, as few before him did.

What follows naturally is his enormous appeal to conductors, musicians and audiences alike.

So surely we can understand the all-flags-flying approach to these current revelries, especially given Dudamel’s fearlessness in going the whole gamut – so far conducting everything from memory. And we can also admire the juxtaposition of his pairings.

First up, he programmed the youthful Mahler – although there are knowing currents of sorrow even with the 4th Symphony and Songs of a Wayfarer. Thomas Hampson gave voice to these aching outcries of a young man jilted, with texts by the composer himself, and we came fully under the singer’s spell.

What else, with a Mahler-phile of his caliber?

Throughout, he inhabited the songs with great warmth – how easy to hear those shadows of Schubert in the baritone’s haunted head tones and the febrile sadness in his resonant ultra-refinement. Intimacy was Hampson’s key and Dudamel found a way to match every orchestral passage to his soloist’s nuanced shapings.

More wonders came with the 4th Symphony – and I sometimes think the Disney Hall acoustic was made for the special hills and valleys of Mahler. Dudamel and the Phil found an almost topographical quality to the score when they let phrases die down and rise up again in their marvelously pliant reading.

Graphic characterizations, synonymous with the composer, leaped into the mind’s eye. So did unafraid tempos range with masterly control. A waltz could stretch out and taper and come back again dramatically.

If there was a disappointment it came in Miah Persson’s account of the final movement’s song, which the soprano delivered without much of its childlike purity and with a sometimes edgy tone.

Later in the week Dudamel and Co. turned to the 1st Symphony, which they also plunged into with controlled abandon. Sitting on the side, I could hear brilliant pockets of sound, as if standing onstage, but not the blended result one gets seated out front.

So whatever shape our maestro imposed on the work remained unknown to me.

But Mahler’s characterizations were certainly knowable from anywhere in the hall, thanks to the stellar playing. Those testosteronic French horn riffs, for instance? Now we know why Strauss picked them up 23 years later for the opening of his Rosenkavalier.

And for the “Frere Jacques” funeral march Dudamel made us “see” a Chasid dancing on the roof, yes, Tevye, so remarkably juicy were his body movements and the players’ response to them. Where else can you get this stuff?

Finally, there was the Adagio from Mahler’s uncompleted 10th Symphony and here Dudamel led the orchestra through a surround of enveloping plushness that cushioned the stringent lines of dissonance.

An ear-opener of an evening, all told.

The Mahler Project runs until February 18. It includes a special event on February 4 at the Shrine Auditorium which will feature over 1000 singers and instrumentalists.

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly the chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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