Music review: Gustavo Dudamel and multitudes tackle Mahler’s 8th


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Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is always an event, even when the ‘Symphony of Thousand’ is a symphony of a more typical 350. But Gustavo Dudamel wanted a spectacle to climax his Los Angeles Philharmonic Mahler Project. He got it Saturday night in the Shrine Auditorium.

Thrilling, of course, automatically goes with a cast-of-a-thousand territory, and 1,017 was apparently the final tally for the performance. Unlike anything else the deeply probing Mahler wrote, this is a symphony of unambiguously jubilant, blissful buoyancy. With such multitudes onstage and five times their number in the audience to provide an atmosphere for collective wonder, Dudamel turned this into an occasion of ecstatic revivalism.


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‘Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound,” Mahler wrote of his Eighth. So try to imagine Saturday a chorus of more than 800 singers, 125 of them children, coming on stage filling 10 rows of risers. The nearly 200 members of the combined L.A. Phil and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela were crammed together. A brass band was positioned on high, taking over a box above one side of the stage. An angelic soprano bathed in golden light, one of eight vocal soloists, later occupied the box on the other side.

That atmosphere, that sense of occasion, is not to be discounted, given that the Shrine is hardly a glorious acoustical space. From where I sat, near the stage, there was little bloom to the sound and the chorus, big as it was, sounded as far away as it looked on the massive stage. Nor are numbers everything in acoustics. Two violins are a little louder than one, but not twice as loud. This performance required a number of acoustical and logistical compromises. Ironically, the electric organ, especially tuned for this performance, had the sonic nuclear power to overwhelm the entire chorus.

The essence of the Eighth is spiritual. The exultant first part is based on a 9th century Latin hymn. The longer second section sets the concluding scenes of Goethe’s “Faust,” a representation of heaven so rapturous that until Mahler came along no music was magnificent enough to realize such a vision.

Mahler made that vision physical. The singers, the composer also wrote, “are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.” If planets did revolve and suns did shine in the Shrine Saturday, that was in part because Dudamel took a surprisingly Italianate and operatic approach to this Eighth, treating the symphony as a kind of drama of the cosmos.

The chorus -- drawn from 18 professional and amateur group throughout Southern California and rehearsed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale music director Grant Gershon -- was remarkably disciplined. There was no possibility this many singers in a dry, dull acoustic would be able to suggest contrapuntal transparency or enunciate words intelligibly. But along with the sheer splendor of the big moments when 800 voices sang as a rapt one, this was a more etched and variegated ensemble than we probably had any right to expect.


The orchestra was fascinating to watch. The athletically unfettered Venezuelans sat side by side at each stand with more eloquently expressive Angeleno players. Bolívar musicians were assigned to the principal positions of the second violins, cellos, flutes, clarinets and trombones. The resulting ensemble made for complex, gritty orchestral textures that suited Mahler, to say nothing of international and generational well-being, very well.

The vocal soloists were not big names, but they offered the kind of operatic fervor that Dudamel was after. Suffering from a cold, tenor Burkhard Fritz had the hardest time, forced to sing with restraint in a part that goes beyond restraint. But others made up for that. The rich gravity of Anna Larsson’s alto was especially notable. So, too, was the soaring of soprano Kiera Duffy, the one in gold singing the part of Mater Gloriosa from on high.

This was Dudamel’s first Eighth, and it was prepared under the extreme conditions of conducting a Mahler cycle. He rose to the occasion in that he remained in full control, although you could see just how tired he looked on the large video monitors placed on either side of the stage.

Dudamel, no doubt, has a great Eighth in him, and that showed when he produced an uncanny sensation of hushed awe rising to a drug-like euphoria at the end. But he was also constrained by too much bigness. Exquisitely colored atmospheric passages, like the tone painting of Goethe’s mystical wilderness that opens the second part, had to be as sonically supersized as all the rest to make an impression in a very big barn.

Still, the ecstasy in Mahler’s Eighth is not to be channeled through the ears alone but is a feast for our many senses and sensibilities. To that end, the Shrine and the thousands it held proved a properly stupendous space for imagining the whole universe ringing and resounding.



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-- Mark Swed