Music review: Dudamel’s Bolivars perform Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’

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Gustav Mahler always said his time would come. It has. A hundred years after his death, Mahler is standard repertory.

But might even mighty Mahler have dared conjure up a vision of his Second Symphony supersized by the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra? This was Sunday’s ardent installment in Gustavo Dudamel’s Mahler Project at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It marked the arrival of the massive and massively impressive Venezuela ensemble, which Dudamel has headed since 1999 and which will be in residence for two weeks, sharing the Mahler Project with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The Bolivars -- who tour and record widely and are the pride and joy of their country’s famed and extensive El Sistema music education program -- are known for their exuberance and their numbers. The orchestra has changed since it first came to Disney in 2007. Or rather it has not changed quite so much as it might have. It is no longer the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which limited its players to age 28.

Now the best are staying on and the ensemble, big as it is -- Sunday it was some 175 strong -- has been growing into a phenomenally tight ensemble. There were no small fries this time, only highly accomplished young musicians who appeared to be in their 20s and 30s.


The players continue to sit as close together as possible (two rows of violins crowded precariously onto the top riser). They still sway as they play, with the waves of rippling bodies becoming an irresistible visual referent to Mahler’s instrumental writing. But the orchestra’s center of gravity seems to have shifted slightly more to the massed lower strings, so forceful that they seemed to aim their sound not at the audiences’ ears but toward the abdomen.

The loud passages made their obvious effects, but the ultra-quiet ones were incomparable. So many musicians playing so softly greatly raises the static electricity in the room, creating the premonition that something’s really up.

And something is up in the Second, which is called the “Resurrection” and which lasted in Dudamel’s quite slow performance a full 90 minutes. Mahler’s score required unusually extravagant instrumental resources for its time; the L.A. Phil probably would have been satisfied to slightly augment its ranks to 115 players. In addition to the big Bolivar crew Sunday, this “Resurrection” relied on the services of the full Los Angeles Master Chorale (with its music director Grant Gershon sitting in with the tenors) and two vocal soloists -- soprano Miah Persson and mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn. There were two offstage bands and an organist who sat patiently until the final measures when he helped part the storm clouds. Mahler opens with a ferocious funeral, as he contemplates the meaning of life and death, whether this existence of ours means anything at all. The final “Resurrection” chorus, which sets an ode by the German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, is one of the most thrilling in the symphonic literature (although Mahler outdoes himself in his Eighth), a vision of salvation after the apocalypse.

But along the five-movement way, Mahler is psychologically lost, his moods in constant contrast. Psychologists could use this symphony as a textbook for categorizing despair and its manic opposite in all their nuances.

Dudamel treated the ‘Resurrection’ like a drama acted out on an epic scale. He could be very expansive and then make extreme shifts in tempo. That sonic palette that the Bolivars provide is vast, and Dudamel reveled in that. These players, many of whom grew up with him, know him and his Mahler so well that Dudamel can be theatrically immoderate with his Bolivars in ways that he, so far, does not dare be with the L.A. Phil.

Yet for all Dudamel’s pushing and pulling, this was a consistent and even curiously literal performance. While Mahler always found sorrow in happiness and searched for hopeful illumination in tragedy, Dudamel doesn’t question Mahler the way some of the composer’s most convincing advocates (Leonard Bernstein in particular) have. He takes Mahler’s spectacle of the soul at face value.

But what face value that is! Agitated Mahler can be sanity-threatening.Triumph is when God defeats the devil and the gates of heaven open up with absolute majesty. The symphony’s final moments were electrifying in the extreme, what with the magnificent chorus, blazing brass, hall-filling organ, stirring soloists, winds as vivid as trumpets, those many strings and a percussion section looking to make a mark on the Richter scale.

If anything, doubt too was vanished. Now Dudamel has to bring it back, big time. There are six Mahler symphonies to go and untold deeper layers of hope and despair yet to uncover.


Music review: Sound of the future

Music review: Absolutely revelatory

Gustavo Dudamel’s Mahler project

-- Mark Swed