Even Gustavo Dudamel is wowed by huge Mahler rehearsal in Caracas


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This is going to be big.

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic arrived backstage at Caracas’ Teatro Teresa Carreno for its first rehearsal with chorus and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony Wednesday morning, the first reaction from many Angelenos was a gasp, a wow and a big smile. Then they whipped out their cameras.

A sea of tightly packed children and young singers rose to the roof. The official count was 1,207, but with that many, who’s counting? They were warming up, and it seemed as though the earth itself was singing solfège syllables. The sound was primal. “I’m not sure I knew what I was getting into,” cracked the L.A. Phil’s longtime production director, Paul M. Geller.


The logistics are extreme. The performance on Saturday -- which also will include the combined L.A. Phil and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra along with eight vocal soloists, all conducted by Gustavo Dudamel -- will turn Mahler’s so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” into something 40% larger. This is said to be the most ever for a Mahler Eighth. Dudamel’s recent performance at the Shrine Auditorium with the same orchestra and Southern California choruses was around 1,000, even though the L.A. venue itself has more than twice of the capacity of the 2,400-seat one in Caracas. While not an especially good hall, the Teresa Carreno acoustics are still far more liquid than at the Shrine, so the wow factor is greatly magnified.

And to add to the already considerable complexity of setup, film crews were busy for the live broadcast to movie theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Although two professional choral groups in Caracas are participating, most of the singers are students (some as young as 7) from núcleo music schools in all 17 states of Venezuela. The Fundamusical Bolívar, the outgrowth of the El Sistema, which funds the núcleos, is also underwriting the expenses of transporting 650 children and teens to Caracas, as well as housing and chaperoning them in three hotels.

Dudamel mostly rehearsed the first part of the symphony. Mahler divided the choruses in two and included separate children’s choir. The two main choruses made their presence known with a magnificent mass that could also turn quiet. The children sang their parts from memory. At the break, all had to stay in place because it would have taken far too long to get them on and off stage. They have also been instructed on how to close ranks if someone faints during a performance. It’s hot on stage, their quarters are close and kids faint easily.

At one point during the break they produced a quite effective rhythmic chant of “agua, agua,” wanting water. They also chanted “Gustavo, Gustavo,” and the orchestra responded by attempting a wave.

After the break, Dudamel briefly walked out into the hall so he could hear the balances for himself (Lionel Bringuier took over the podium with engaging flair). Dudamel’s response to the ear-shattering, ecstatic end of the first part was exactly the same as that of everyone else: Wow!



Caracas diary: Meeting the youngest musicians of El Sistema

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

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

-- Mark Swed