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Taking the Fifth

January 28, 2012


If it’s Thursday, it must be Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 which Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela did their one-off performance of on January 26. As mentioned earlier this week, I’m spreading the love around by passing along my seat to some guest voices to reflect on the Mahler mania downtown. For the 5th, I’ve asked bon vivant and man-about-town Ben Vanaman to share his thoughts on the performance, which follows.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Mahler Project” continued Thursday night with a performance of the composer’s Fifth symphony by the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela. It was a messy business, but, then, the orchestra had to contend with the likes of the man sitting behind me who snored convulsively through the entire performance. In any event, this was my first time hearing this band perform. I’ve heretofore resisted, for while I appreciate that this is an ensemble made up largely of young people who are the future professionals of orchestras around the world, I would frankly rather listen to grown-ups play, men and women with a little more living under their belt who bring added maturity and wisdom to their collaborations with each other and the maestros leading them from the podium. In this regard, I wasn’t contradicted. This is a very large orchestra and they make a lot of noise, an often fractious, cacophonous, undifferentiated wall of sound against which there’s little defense. Think of an aural equivalent of the ninety-foot-tall tidal wave hurtling toward the S.S. Poseidon, and you get the idea of what it’s like being subjected to the mighty blast conjured up by these earnest but precociously unseasoned young players.

These kids hit their notes accurately but invariably. The horns blared, the woodwinds –not always in tune- bleeped, and the string players sawed away, swaying to and fro, with a fervor that would have made Mantovani blush. Everything was mezzo-forte. Inner voices were often indistinguishable. It was often like listening to a really good high school marching band. But is this Mahler? Part of the problem may have been at the podium. The massive architecture of the Mahler (and Bruckner) symphonies is paradoxically delicate, and it can be so easy for these cathedral-like structures to collapse lacking venerable leadership at the helm. Such sometimes seemed the case here, maestro Dudamel alternately pushing through the score with grim determination while occasionally stopping to luxuriate too long over this passage or that as is his youthful wont, the effect being equivalent to participating in an old fashioned taffy pull. It was gooey, but was it musical?

This brings us to the Adagietto. Immortalized for cineastes as the soundtrack to Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” this movement –some of the most beautiful music ever written- began prettily enough. Certainly my ambivalence over the conductor’s reading of the movements preceding it made me yearn to reach this emotional climax. But by the time Dudamel had slowed the recap of the opening theme toward the end of the movement to the point of dissipation, I couldn’t help but think that the snoring man behind me was Aschenbach raising complaint, his obsession with Tadzio having succumbed to narcosis rather than being driven inexorably if fatefully onward by the surge of Mahler’s passionate score.

This being L.A., the rousing final chords were met with an instant and uproarious standing ovation. Few left. Many were stamping their feet like they were at a hootenanny. In fact, that may not have been far off the mark, as the L.A. Philharmonic organization is arguably in the process of becoming the Ringling Brothers of classical music. Long before the end, I was wishing that I were somewhere else: seeing Norris’ Clybourne Park a second time across the street; sitting near my same seat in Disney Hall listening once again to the L.A. Philharmonic’s brilliant recent performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 under conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen; lounging at home watching the latest episode of “Revenge.” When you’re in the concert hall and you keep thinking of the items you need to pick up at the market on the way home, there’s a problem. Or maybe that’s just me.



Personally, I'd rather piss a steak knife sideways than listen to dudamel do Mahler ever again. As you point out, he has little feel for the architecture of the pieces & substitutes faux profundity for any real ideas about the pieces. I know he's been trumped up as a Mahler specialist, but I don't buy it. No doubt, Borda & the Phil will be crowing about the success of these concerts, but what has it been more than a vulgar stunt?
I'm with you Ben in your deliciously withering review. Last time the mass array of students came to town to pummel the Mahler 5th into submission I had the good sense to walk out midway through the performance.
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