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Monday, March 14, 2016

Concert Review: To Infinity and Beyond

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Mahler Third.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Dude abides: Gustavo Dudamel.
Photo by Mark Hanauer © 2015 Universal Classics UMG
For Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan conductor who wears his fame like an easy evening cloak, any concert in New York is a big deal. On Sunday, Mr. Dudamel brought his Los Angeles Philharmonic to Lincoln Center for the first of two concerts. This opener featured Mahler's giant-sized Symphony No. 3 in D Minor, a 100-minute exercise in world-building that ranks as the longest symphony to hold a place in the standard repertory. In it, Mahler depicts nothing less than the entire cosmos, from the birth of his beloved Alps to the rewards of heaven and beyond.

The first movement is the Godzilla of openings.At 45 minutes, this movement (marked Kräftig, Entschieden) is long as some performances of  Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. In it, Mahler states an opening motto theme in the brass which yields to chthonic  growlings and groanings in the basses, cellos and low strings, the sound of a world struggling to birth itself from primal chaos. Mr. Dudamel took a slow and detail-oriented approach to these dark early pages, before whipping up Mahler's marching band that materializes in the far distance, swaggering into the fray to announce the arrival of summer.

The remaining five movements are just under an hour. The next is a gentle dance movement, with delicate winds, pizzicato strings and a lilt that recalls the sensuous love music of Wagner's flower maidens. The Los Angeles woodwind players were at the forefront here, coloring in Mahler's picture-book of bobbing flowers with gentle, pastel shades. Mr. Dudamel's beat here was a little stiff and formal, as he conducted his players without the benefit of podium or orchestral score.

The third movement is almost as ambitious as the first, a scherzo that gives way in its middle section to a lengthy solo for that oddest of brass instruments, the post-horn. The playing here sparkled as the oboes, flutes and clarinets scrambled for dominance as Mr. Dudamel drove the movement forward. The post-horn solo was sublime and eloquent, gently accompanied and the sound of a voice crying in the aural wilderness that Mahler's imagination had wrought. Indeed, the wordless music seemed to be trying to communicate a key message here, answered in dialogue by a choir of orchestral horns.

Mahler adds voices to the fourth and fifth movements of his symphony. Mr. Dudamel took these and the sixth movement attacca, forming one continuous stream of musical thought for the last half of this huge work. Here, the contralto soloist was a familiar face: Tamara Mumford, who appears regularly on New York's opera stages. She sang "O Mensch, gib' Acht!" (the text is Nietzsche) with a hushed sense of awe, accompanied by familiar basso rumblings that looked back to the the development of the first movement.

The Concert Chorale of New York and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus joined the orchestra for the fifth movement, a setting of the song ""Es sungen drei Engel" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This movement can seem mawkish in the wrong hands, as the children's chorus sings onomatopoeic bell-strikes and the other chorus sings of St. Peter's relationship with Jesus. Here, this work served a more musical function, a last burst of energy after the slow fourth movement and a light-hearted relief before the mysteries of the sixth movement.

Mr. Dudamel left the choir standing as he launched the final Adagio, a slow-crawling love song that started in the low strings before rising in a tide of sound. (They slowly sat as the music swelled.) Of particular interest here was how the conductor cued the various string sections to cease and yield to the next in a great, canonic song of love. Eventually, Mahler's score added woodwinds and brass, with the horns calling out a readjusted, version of the opening motto theme, resolved into blissful major after its journey through the cosmos. The finale, with a none-too-subtle Nietszchean dig at Also Sprach Zarathustra by Mahler's friend and rival Richard Strauss coalesced into a shimmering cloud of sound, a world at peace in the sunny sonic landscape of this composer's wild imagination. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.