Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Seven of Nine, or,
Keep Reaching for the Stars

February 03, 2012


This week the Los Angeles Philharmonic, along with the visiting Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, rolled into the home stretch of the ongoing Mahler Symphony cycle that has dominated the WDCH stage much of the last month. On Tuesday music director Gustavo Dudamel led the SBSOV in the 7th Symphony and on Thursday night the conductor and the L.A. Phil returned to the 9th. And while the numbers keep getting bigger, the hits, or at least the aesthetic success of the evenings, keeps getting smaller. Mahler’s later symphonies more brazenly distort conventional structures of his own time in the crumbling dissolution of late Romanticism. Lyrical passages turn dark and discordant unexpectedly and death is always waiting in the wings. And while Dudamel continues to show significant growth in these works, the struggle to manage their complex structure often proves too much for him especially compared to the successes he had earlier on in the cycle.

Who Dudamel is leading, of the two orchestras on hand for the series, appears to have a big effect on the overall quality of the performance. The relatively younger players of the SBSOV share a great deal in terms of musical training and background with their long standing leader. And while that can lead to some lovely playing to be sure, it also highlights the weaknesses they share. Restraint and subtlety are nearly absent in the interpretation, and Tuesday’s performance of the 7th Symphony was frequently a slog. Phrasing was haphazard and the overall structure listless and disorganized. None of this stopped them from delivering a first rate version of the final movement, though, and sometimes finishing strong can make up for problems earlier in the evening. The pluck and unity of the players gelled in these final moments for a finale that rivaled anything the SBSOV played their entire time here.

Dudamel fairs much better with the L.A. Phil players on the whole. There’s more of an inherent restraint in the orchestra that works against some of Dudamel’s dramatic excesses. All of this came into focus in a frequently stirring performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, which had the first of three performances on Thursday. This is not the conductor’s first performance of the piece here in Los Angeles (in fact they played it at this time just last year), and much like his return to the 1st with the players last week, this performance of the 9th was far better organized and thought out than before. The opening Andante comodo featured the lovely rich and burnished string sound the orchestra revels in these days. And the second movement’s Ländler themes were more relaxed and warmer than before. Still there are issues with indulgent, broken phrasing that can make movements like the closing Adagio feel like a death by flogging than some blissful expiration. There were really too many lovely contributions from different soloists and sections to detail them all here. The French Horns in particular sound more certain than ever to be sure. The performance was worthwhile and a marked improvement over previous outings with much to recommend it. It didn’t tower above most Mahler interpretations, but it was certainly a viable one. Dudamel did get one of those increasingly fetishistic lengthy silences after the performance on Thursday that was mildly amusing in the way everyone ignored both the sole whoop and the cell phone alarm that marred it. But that’s a distinct improvement over it happening before the performance was over, an event that New Yorker’s got some experience with earlier this month with the very same piece. We Los Angelenos may not get everything right, but we do know how to put on a show.


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