Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


February 05, 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.



Brian - great seeing you at the event last night. How I wish we had a Royal Albert Hall in Los Angeles! The Shrine although large enough to contain the assembled forces proved to be no match made in heaven for Mahler. Sitting in the very front row I knew the sound would pour over my head, but I was still surprised to hear how vaporous the 800+ voices of the chorus sounded. The sound of from the back of the stage I am sure went straight up into the fly space above where the chorus was sitting. Having the choir literally in the same room as the orchestra would have helped immensely. I spoke with friends who sang and they mentioned how difficult it was to hear..... oh well. I thought Dudamel, in his youth, turned in a thoughtful almost chamber-sized reading. I too noticed him using the score, and I could see he was actually fatigued at the end. How many Mahler symphonies has he conducted this week? Three? Gustavo's Mahler is not Bernstein's Mahler, for now. Could not agree more with your account of the soloists: sitting right in front of soprano di Giacomo, her fresh and soulful tone moved me, and the baritone in the opening of the Goethe section - swoon-worthy.

All in all, a memorable night - wish we had the exact right venue for all of that. To have all the forces in a non-proscenium concert hall would have had so much more impact.
A worthy read. Thanks.

Brian, you've repeatedly taken the LA Phil marketing folks to task for calling this the "Mahler Project" instead of just a good-ol' fashion symphony cycle.

Their claim (and that of those who support them) is that doing all nine symphonies + the Adagio from the 10th + Songs of a Wayfarer in such a short period of time is uncommon (even rare, or perhaps even "historic).

I don't follow the frequency of these things, but perhaps you do: is there evidence that this is, in fact, more common than they claim?

If there is, than I'd agree with your claim that this is mere promotional puffery. If not, then perhaps it's worth tipping a cap to those involved (Dudamel first among them) for the effort . . .
There are two issues here CKDH. First is the "Project" business. I'm fine with the term project as long as there is one. The term would seem to imply something more than just a cycle or else why would you need a different word to begin with. Perhaps if there were unusual performance elements like a staging of some sort, or if the symphonies were presented alongside other musical or performance works I could see it being a "project", but outside of matters of logistics and personnel, I'm not aware of any aesthetic added value to the performances other than simply being Mahler's symphonies.

The second issue is whether these logistic and personnel issues present something unique or unusual. and certainly locally they do. But in a broader sense they are far from it. I don't have an exhaustive list, but for starters the Staatskapelle Berlin played everything we heard here plus Das Lied von Der Erde in 12 days in New York in 2009. This involved one orchestra and two conductors Barenboim and Boulez. They had previously done the same thing in 2007 in Berlin. The Philharmonia Orchestra of London presented all but the 8th between 11 April 2011 and 29 May with the 8th opening the fall season later that year. However in this cycle's initial month, there were multiple performances of each symphony in cities throughout Europe with the players dashing back and forth between England and the rest of the continent for 29 performances of the 8 other works all conducted by Lorin Maazel. So while this is not enough data to publish a research paper or anything, it's enough to suggest that playing the Mahler symphonies in rapid succession is not unprecedented in recent years regardless of whether it is artistically advisable to do so.
Thanks for the info.

BTW: If the LA Phil would have played something in addition to what they did, they would have called it "Mahler Unbound" instead of "Mahler Project"
I believe the project moniker is supposed to indicate the various extra-concert lectures, educational activities, community events, and so on, that were happening at the same time and using Mahler's music as a framework

Also i agree that the shrines acoustics were bad but staples would have been truly awful. What to do when you need to fit 1000 people on stage? We have a lot of great performance venues in southern California but few with that kind of space
The phrase "Gustavo Dudamel led an enormous cast including both the orchestras he leads" is not only awkward (led - leads) but is also misleading (please forgive me for that one), because these - LA Phil and SBSOV - are not the only two: he is also the principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony.
I'm sorry but for the life of me I cannot discern which orchestra SBSOV is. I've been out of town, in Mexico, the past three weeks, so I missed the whole show. I think "...Project" is a little odd but who really pays attention.

I'm glad to hear you are warming up to Gustavo's Mahler (btw I prefer referring to him as Gustavo than Dudamel, it just trips on the tongue better for me). He's creative and fun more than deadly serious about Mahler, and I appreciate that. He can also elicit the sweetest sound from the Phil which is quite touching. I throw out the whole Central European approach because Dudamel (there I go) is Latin American after all. He brings a freshness to the familiar, though he does slip and slide often.

How does a kid (I know he's 30 but in many aspects still a kid) handle all that material, it defies natural law or something. Personally I think it's nuts to tackle all Mahler at once—thank goodness he had the good sense to omit Das Lied! And how can anyone younger than 40 assay the Ninth, really? Few 40 year-olders could well manage it and most of them are now dead. But, as they say the show must go on.
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