By Robert D. Thomas Music Critic Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Mahler: Symphony No. 5
Thursday, January 26, 2012 • Walt Disney Concert Hall
Tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Mahler: Symphony No. 6
As I was riding the Gold Line home from last night’s concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, I contemplated the difference in audience reaction to the concerts of “The Mahler Project” played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as opposed to those played by the Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Both ensembles have received standing ovations for their performances, but there are LA Phil ovations and then there are those for the Bolivár “kids.”
It’s not that the Bolivárs have played better than the Phil — close, but not better. Moreover, Gustavo Dudamel (who celebrated his 31st birthday last night) has conducted every program from memory. The hall has been packed for each concert, although there were a few more empty seats last night than for Sunday and Tuesday. Nonetheless, there’s an excitement level to the reaction to the Bolivárs that palpably exceeds that accorded the Phil.
Part of the difference lies in the symphonies played. The Phil opened two weeks ago with No. 4, the sunniest, shortest and least dramatic of Mahler’s completed symphonic output. Last weekend, it came back with No. 1 and the Adagio from No. 10, and since the Thursday and Saturday program concluded with the somber Adagio, that surely dampened the audience’s enthusiasm. Although the “Casual Friday” concert was just Symphony No. 1 and did receive a thunderous ovation, the excitement level was diluted somewhat by the knowledge that a Q&A session (and/or drinks with the orchestra members) was following.
By contrast, the Bolivárs have played three of the five symphonies with the loudest, most pulsating endings. On Tuesday, they get No. 7 (also with a big finale) and they’ll be part of the combined orchestra that plays No. 8, the other work that fits this description.
Another rationale for the difference in reaction is size. The Bolivárs are putting about 175 players on stage each night, about 65 more than the Phil for their performances (the LAPO will play Symphony No. 6 tonight, tomorrow and Sunday and No. 9 on Feb. 3 and 5 to conclude the cycle). The 96 Bolivár string players equal what would be a large orchestra for almost anything except Mahler. Size isn’t everything but when the Bolivárs are playing full force, they can, indeed, make a mighty noise as we have heard to conclude their three programs, and most in the audiences react.
Even with all the caveats, the excitement level for the Bolivár concerts has been noticeably high than for the Phil. It was also that way in 2007 when the “kids” made their Disney Hall debut in two concerts that were among the most exciting I’ve ever attended. Excitement isn’t everything in a concert, but once again this year it’s been noticeable.
Symphony No. 5 was the first symphony Mahler wrote without a specific programmatic theme and the first since Symphony No. 1 to eschew soloists or a chorus. The work was begun in 1901 shortly after Mahler nearly died from an a hemorrhage that program annotator Herbert Glass called “intestinal” and preconcert lecturer Norman Lebrecht placed slightly lower on Mahler’s body. Like nearly all of Mahler’s symphonies, this one includes — indeed, in this case, begins with — a funeral march but it also includes a love poem to his bride, the famous Adagietto for strings that Luchino Visconti would appropriate 70 years later as the theme music for the movie Death in Venice.
Mahler 5 is also a piece with which Dudamel and the Bolivárs are closely identified. They played it on their opening Disney Hall concert in 2007 (and on their subsequent cross-country tour) and later recorded it.
Last night was the most cohesive collaboration between Dudamel and his youthful colleagues during this cycle and the orchestra’s playing was exemplary. The entire brass section, led by the principal trumpet and principal horn players, was stunning throughout the performance (the Bolivárs don’t provide principals lists but since their listing in the program isn’t alphabetical, I’ll take a guess that these two were Tomás Medina and Rafael Payare — they eminently deserve to be singled out). The strings played with a rich, unified sound and amazing rhythmic precision (especially considering their numbers); not only do these folks wield their bows in unison, they also sway in unison.
As he has done in other performances during this cycle Dudamel continues to emphasize luxuriant tempos. In both the third and fifth movements, he occasionally got a little too cutesy in his moments of elasticity but overall this was a smartly paced 74-minute performance that sustained tension admirably. The Adagietto glided along with effortless ease and the final movement was less frenetic than what shows up on the recording or what I remember from the concert four-plus years ago.
Untimately, that adds up to a level of increased maturity that holds a great deal of promise for succeeding Dudamel years (presumably many of them) in Los Angeles. At the same time, may he never lose the sense of excitement that continues to pour out of all of these programs.
• Although it’s not quite as noticeable as the Vienna Philharmonic, a colleague seated next to me noted that the Bolivárs had just 24 women in the 175 players who were on stage last night, and most of those are in the string sections. Just two of the 32 brass players were female and none of the percussionists.
• In his preconcert lecture before Symphony No. 1, Gilbert Kaplan said that he has heard the Adagietto played in as little as eight minutes and as long as 15. Dudamel was in the middle: 11 minutes.
• Lebrech’s lecture last night was again insightful. He’s on tap for the lectures on tomorrow and Sunday — arrive early; the crowds have been overflow. Asadour Santourian, Vice President for Artistic Administration and Artistic Advisor for the Aspen Music Festival, is listed as giving the lecture tonight.
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.