PARIS — For the opening concert of the Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris 2022-2023 season Sept. 16 at the Philharmonie de Paris, music director Gustavo Dudamel delivered an interpretation of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that was emphatically without emotional histrionics or romantic indulgences. This Mahler Ninth was sometimes bold and more often subtle. But all told, it was unpretentiously direct, proving that a reading of Mahler’s last (completed) and dramatic symphony could be potent and restrained at the same time.
Dudamel captured an immediate sense of simplicity and vulnerability in his treatment of Mahler’s transparent orchestration. He stripped the vibrato from the horn, harp, and violin lines, suggesting even at the first iteration of Mahler’s “sighing” melody that his Mahler 9 would be straightforward.
That does not mean the reading was cold or calculated, but merely that Dudamel’s response to the work’s lyricism and drama was not overly rhapsodized. This held generally true across all four movements. Tempi were not stretched disproportionately and dynamics were more homogenized into the mesh of the orchestral canvas than what we might be accustomed to from our Mahler experiences. This approach took a little time to get used to. Our preconceptions of what a Mahler symphony should sound like have been somewhat ingrained by interpretations intent on extremes.
With Dudamel conducting from memory, the orchestra was pliant, and there was a distinct feeling of a collegial relationship between the conductor and orchestra. A smile shared or a look exchanged between conductor and musician or between musicians hinted at a more chamber-music approach.
In the opening Andante comodo, Dudamel brought the most expansive dynamic range of the night. The sturdy brass section, especially the trombones, displayed confident gravitas. Interrupting bursts from the entire brass section buttressed the movement. The imitative bird sequences from the wind section’s principal players sang freely and spontaneously, as if at times the melodies were plucked from a field. The most impressive contributions came from principal flutist Claude LeFebvre, her piccolo accomplice Sabine Tavenard, and principal clarinettist Philippe Cuper.
In the second movement, Dudamel’s handling of Mahler’s explorations of dance music were particularly grounded. Saccharine, nostalgia, or sentimentality were nowhere to be heard. Instead, Dudamel extracted as much of the “heavy-footed,” “coarse,” and “clumsy playing” as Mahler directed in his score. The three kinds of so-called ländler were played with a held emphasis on the first beat of the bar. The waltzes were performed with a consistent lilt, and Dudamel indulged his trusty string players by allowing them to dig into their strings with as much grit as they wished.
The Rondo-Burlesque third movement was revealed all its characteristic chatter and squealy high notes — even if the conspicuous lack of vibrato again produced sound effects that were not immediately appealing to the ear.
In the fourth movement, the strings refrained from the portamenti that Mahler requests. The Andante, with its hymn-like song, was performed with eloquence and restraint. Dudamel summoned an abundant and rich sound from the strings, finding a gossamer touch for the translucent pianississimo ending. Through the movement’s slow, propelling motion, the string playing was the highlight of the night.
At the end, Dudamel held the silence of the moment. For at least thirty seconds, no one moved. The conductor’s hands remained raised, the bows of the instruments suspended in mid-air: a stasis.
But then the crowd roared. Paris leapt to its feet for what seemed like ten minutes. Though the conductor deflected most of that appreciation to his orchestra, it was clear that Dudamel is much appreciated here.