Notes From The L.A. Mahlerthon – Part Two

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

Gustavo Dudamel wanted to complete his Mahler Project with a performance of the Eighth Symphony that mirrored the 1910 premiere of the piece – with a thousand or more performers.  There was a little problem, though – Walt Disney Concert Hall only seats 2,265 customers, and with so many performers taking up so much room, not many tickets would be available. Also, it was winter – and though temperatures turned out to be on the mild side, who would take a chance on booking a big outdoor arena many months in advance?

So the Los Angeles Philharmonic scouted around Southern California and settled upon the Shrine Auditorium – a big old 6,300-seat barn of a hall, built in 1925, once a stage for visiting opera companies long, long ago, occasionally the site of awards shows like the Grammys and the Oscars, and in one case, a near-riot when the Armenians showed up to protest the Red Army Ensemble’s gig there (yours truly made his one and only appearance as a war correspondent that night). The acoustics are dry, muffled, with a tubby mid-bass; the plushly upholstered ceiling tells you how little the designers cared about sound. There was an unpleasant surprise outside;  parking was advertised as $10, but when you arrived at the hall, it had been jacked it up to $20 without warning.

Inside the hall, despite their numbers, the 800-member chorus sounded dim and recessed; when it comes to acoustics, 2+2 does not necessarily equal four.  The eight vocal soloists veered in and out of audibility from a seat in the balcony, the combined L.A. Philharmonic and Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra sounded only a little less anemic than the chorus, the electric organ easily wiped out a good deal of the choral sound whenever it went into action.  The ingredients for a musical fiasco were in place.

And yet … the performance on Feb. 4 ultimately soared above the obstacles placed by this dull old building.  I didn’t think that Dudamel’s interpretation had anything particularly striking to say (it was his first time with the piece); he played it straight-forwardly, didn’t get in the way.  But this Eighth had an emotional wallop that I have never experienced live in the work, more so than in any of the other five live performances I’ve seen – three in the admittedly recalcitrant concrete spaces of Hollywood Bowl, but also two in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall.

How could this be? I now believe that Mahler was absolutely right to insist upon a thousand performers in order for his Eighth to make its full emotional impact.  A man of the theatre, always fussing with the slightest of details whether on the podium or on the opera stage itself, Mahler must have had a superior knowledge of acoustical phenomena, knowing what it would take to achieve his vision of “the whole universe beginning to ring and resound,” of “planets and suns revolving.” Hence the 1910 premiere – which used just over a thousand performers and from all reports, made an overwhelming emotional impression upon virtually everyone who was there.  The other performances I saw averaged from something like 300 to 500 performers. The numbers are approximate, but none came close to a thousand, and none made a bigger impression upon me than the Shrine performance even though the volume level was higher at the others and in the case of Michael Tilson Thomas’s performance at Davies, the detail was much, much clearer and the interpretation was more searching.  The composer knew what would sound, and Dudamel was only too happy to follow.

So ended the Gustavo Dudamel Mahlerthon, a mixed bag of performances with two that I would consider great – Symphonies 7 and 8 – two that were missed opportunities – 4 and 6 – and the rest falling variously in between. Yet I could name several cycles on recordings that have had a lower batting average, and not too many that have done better.