Caracas diary: A sweet Mahler’s Fourth and Dudamel-mania


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What doesn’t kill you will make you fat, the Venezuelans are said to joke.

With a day off in Caracas between performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony on Saturday night and Mahler’s Fourth on Monday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on its first visit here, got a taste of that saying, so to speak. This is not a town in which a visitor might safely roam, and especially not on an election day, as Sunday was. So the players took it easy in their hotel.

Because raw foods and unpeeled fruit are not recommended (there has already been a case of food poisoning), available Venezuelan cuisine has tended toward things high in fat and calories. Sugar is plentiful. But maybe that hasn’t been such a bad thing.


The performance of the Mahler Fourth had a relaxed but potent sweetness Monday in the Teatro Teresa Carreno that it hadn’t when Gustavo Dudamel began his Mahler Project with the symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall exactly one month earlier.

And one couldn’t help but smile at the Spanish translation for something in the song, “Heavenly Life,” that Mahler used for the symphony’s last movement. The satirical text is about angels who bake bread and grow good asparagus, good apples, good grapes. A German line that would ordinarily read in English, “in gentlest peace,” became en dulce paz. That has the double meaning of gentle and sweet peace. The Fourth is not a symphonic confection, exactly, but it is the gentlest and sweetest of the nine Mahler symphonies. It was also the least eventful of Dudamel’s Mahler performances.

Not that anything Dudamel does in his home country can be uneventful. Along a chaotic (and possibly dodgy) street in front of the concert hall, a table covered with Dudamel T-shirts, photographs and other collectibles was doing brisk business. Dudamel-mania is such that he was swamped by fans who wanted to take his picture anywhere he went.

Dulce, indeed. Following the L.A. Phil’s month of one emotionally momentous Mahler symphony after another after another, it found for a brief moment (well, for the 55 minutes of Mahler’s shortest symphony), a remarkable pocket of sweet sublimity in a hall that doesn’t have a lot of natural warmth.

Creamy strings in the Adagio were ever so sweet. Uplifting winds in the first movement were ever so gentle. Brass breathed the heavenly life. Klara Ek was the mellow soprano for the Finale.

I keep hearing from the musicians how tired Dudamel appears when he is not conducting. His head must be swimming from performing all that Mahler from memory. He spent Monday morning rehearsing the L.A. Philharmonic in parts of the First, Fourth, Sixth and Tenth. He spent the afternoon with the 1,000-plus chorus preparing for the Eighth, which concludes the Mahler Project on Saturday. He has been kidding that he is afraid he will forget what day it is and start conducting the wrong symphony.


But on the podium for the Fourth he was cool and suave. He looked perhaps to be favoring a shoulder said to be giving him problems, but he has now found the symphony’s beguiling lyric grace that had slightly eluded him in the earlier L.A. Fourth.

Even a cellphone that went off just as the last sweet moments of the symphony were being savored could do surprisingly little to sour the effect. Plus, there were the ever-present vendors of cute Venezuelan chocolate squares wrapped with portraits of Mahler waiting outside the hall to reinforce the sweetness.


The Mahler Project: The composer in L.A.

Music review: The L.A. Phil Mahler Project begins

Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Phil start things in Caracas


-- Mark Swed in Caracas, Venezuela