Review

Gustavo Dudamel brings out the full force and awe of Mahler's Third Symphony

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic

Is Donald Trump a force of nature? Is Bernie? One wants to build the world's most imposing wall to keep Others out. One wants to take down Wall Street to let everyone else in.

Nature, however, is boss. She couldn't care less about how we humans do our business. We can change her, but she can wipe us out if we displease her enough. And there is no better way, at least indoors, to sense the overwhelming awe of nature and our spiritual place in the very big scheme of things than spending 100 minutes with Mahler's Third Symphony.

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Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in this epically exhilarating and terrifying, morally and mystically fulfilling, work for huge orchestra, women's chorus, children's chorus and mezzo-soprano solo at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night, just as presidential candidates were finishing another exercise in taunts and insults. After the fourth performance Sunday afternoon, Dudamel and the orchestra will take this glorious monster of a symphony overseas in hopes of reassuring Europeans that we Americans haven't lost our heads.

Benevolent but willful, Mahler's vision is of nature so much bigger than mankind that humanity can flourish only when we act in complete accord with our environment. The half-hour first part of the symphony, which was composed mostly in 1895, begins with a grand march of summer — majestic, triumphant, gleefully blossoming but also with dangerous weather and mysterious forces at play.

The second part, in five movements, focuses first on the flowers and the animals and what they tell us. Only after an hour do we, the Other, enter, and we enter kvetching, thinking only of ourselves. "Oh, man, give heed," the mezzo bemoans, singing a text from Nietzsche's "Also Sprach Zarathustra." Deep is our pain. To the accompaniment of children beaming "bimm bamm bimm bamm," the angels answer proclaiming the promise of heavenly joy for all.

Mahler's way forward is in a long, slow, unbearably beautiful last movement, originally titled "What Love Tells Me." In music of transfixing, otherworldly eloquence, love is shown as the process of bulldozing the final barrier — the ego — between us and our surroundings. A crushing climax leads not to destruction but profound acceptance.

The L.A. Phil has a history with this symphony, thanks to Esa-Pekka Salonen. It was the Third with which Salonen began his conducting career, learning the symphony in a few days when approached as last-minute substitute in London for Philharmonia Orchestra performance in 1983. Nine years later he began his tenure as L.A. Phil music director with the symphony. On that occasion it was what flowers foretold, since they were handed out to everyone who entered the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Salonen's subsequent Mahler Third recording with the L.A. Phil helped to establish his reputation as a Mahler conductor.

Thursday was Dudamel's first performance of the Third with the L.A. Phil. For the "Mahler Project," when he did all nine symphonies here in 2012, Dudamel led the Third with a 175-strong Simón Bolívar Symphony at Disney Hall. It was a raucous, riotous and somewhat messy performance.

The exuberance remains. So does Dudamel's romantic impulse to treat the Third as an epic struggle between forces of dark and light. Mahler's score is full of fabulous instrumental effects no composer had thought of before. Instruments play out of time. Just as birds chirp in their own rhythms, so too, on occasion, does a piccolo.

A trombone in the first movement, powerfully played Thursday by Jórgen van Rijen, is a horrifying sound from the beyond. There are massive resonating cymbal crashes that go beyond adding percussion exclamation points but set the hall vibrating in admonition of something coming, but who knows what.

Dudamel dug deeply into all this. He excelled in revealing the power of Mahler. Ever heightening effects, Dudamel approached Mahler's flowers as if he found them in a heavily perfumed, dense Amazonian forest. Mahler's animals came to life as though the concert were a field trip to the zoo. The nostalgic, offstage post-horn solo (lovingly played on a cornet by Thomas Hooten) was the distillation of pure nostalgia.

The final movement was not a serene contrast to all that went before, and it consequently verged on becoming overblown were it not that Dudamel now has an individual holistic approach to the symphony. It is a radically different way of looking at score than Salonen's, which steers clear of sentiment.

Dudamel's dark, wrenching Mahler Third views our surroundings through a more reactive lens. Deep, indeed, is our suffering. When summer's march becomes terrifying, it is not natural forces at work but somehow an enhanced reflection of our own fears.

The L.A. Phil played with gut-wrenching strength and a remarkable unanimity even in passages where Mahler calls for distinctive instrumental individuality. Tamara Mumford brought wonderfully rich tone to the mezzo-solos. The women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Children's Chorus were rays of bright joy.

The overpowering grandeur of Dudamel's Mahler Third is ultimately and irresistibly utopian. The performance convinced a cheering audience Thursday night that it's the Mahler we now need. With luck, it will do the same for audiences on the road.

Mahler had said his time would come. Musically, it unquestionably has. But a century and a quarter after he first began admonishing us about our relationship with our environment, he obviously needs, more than ever, all the help he can get at the existential level.

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Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $72.50-$213.50

Info: (323) 850-2000, www.laphil.org

mark.swed@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 05, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Mahler in full force - MUSIC REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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