Last night the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel, returned to Davies Symphony Hall for the second of the two concerts presented as part of the Great Performers Series of the San Francisco Symphony. For those who had attended the first program on Monday night, all of the faces were familiar; but the listening experience could not have been more different. Last night offered only a single composition, the ninth symphony in D major composed by Gustav Mahler in 1910. Mahler reported the completion of the score to Bruno Walter on April 1, 1910, and he would die the following month on May 18. This makes the symphony the last score that Mahler completed.
Nevertheless, it is very much an “intermediate” achievement along a path that Mahler never lived to continue. The opening gestures of the first movement clearly indicate that this symphony is following through on the measures that completed his six-movement song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (the song of the earth). Yet even in those opening measures one knows that Mahler is venturing into new territory. The symphony begins with fragmented gestures superposed in a disjointed manner that resists integration into a theme. Indeed, the very concept of “theme” is torn between this radical new approach to decomposition opposed to an equally radical spinning-out of long melodic lines that also fail to cohere in any traditional sense of the theme concept. (That latter technique would then receive its own follow-through in the opening measures of the tenth symphony that Mahler never lived to complete.)
Like many of Mahler’s works, the ninth symphony has a roughly symmetrical “grand plan.” The two outer movements are both about half an hour in duration, each with an overall slow tempo and an almost stream-of-consciousness resistance to any classical sense of structure. Those movements enclose a pair of shorter movements, each about fifteen minutes in duration, each at a livelier tempo, and each a scherzo with an abundance of razor-sharp rhetorical barbs.
However, any sense of order “in the large” is disrupted by innumerable devils of detail. Indeed, those devils are so abundant that it is only through a concert experience that one can realize just how inadequate recording technology is at capturing them all. Dudamel himself had to face this problem with the Deutsche Grammophon recording of his conducting this symphony at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which was released in February of 2013. If Dudamel had established a solid command of all of those details in the concert performances he had given, which were captured by Deutsche Grammophon in 2012, that expertise was painfully lacking on the resulting recording.
Last night, on the other hand, there was never any question of that command. When things sounded as if Mahler was superposing more of his motivic fragments than the human ear could negotiate, Dudamel knew how to sort them out with balancing that allowed each motif to at least suggest, if not overtly declare, its presence. If the ninth can be taken as Mahler’s thorniest symphony, last night Dudamel made the serious listener aware of every one of those thorns and of the almost frighting texture emerging from their aggregation. At the same time he used each of the thorns in the scherzo movements to establish an overall rhetoric of almost savage irony, delivering both of those movements with an intensity of energy that was almost frightening.
Most importantly, however, in contrast to Monday night, Dudamel demonstrated his ability to command a prodigiously broad range of dynamic levels. Having proved on Monday that the Los Angeles Philharmonic could roar its lungs out along with wildest of orchestral beasts, Dudamel showed that he could also drop the dynamic level down to the threshold of audibility. In doing so he made a convincing case that the prevailing rhetoric of barbed irony is supplemented by the suspense of dreading what may be lurking around the next corner of the score, so to speak. In other words Dudamel knew how to lead the listener, in a Virgilian manner, through the many darkest recesses of Mahler’s imagination without ever devolving into a cheerful tour guide.
Taken as a whole, last night’s approach to performing Mahler was definitely “one for the books;” and, judging by the reception following the spooky stillness of the symphony’s last gasp, the audience seemed to know it.