Back in the bad old days, one of the most frequent and flagrant excuses for keeping Mahler's music out of the concert hall was, "He's too long-winded." Even now, a few unrepentant Mahlerphobes still cling to that notion.
But they wouldn't dare use Thursday night's Hollywood Bowl concert as an example, for conductor Bramwell Tovey, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and baritone Thomas Hampson needed less than half an hour to create a satisfying Mahler experience outdoors -- complete with a storyline tying everything together.
First off was a rarity, the "Blumine" movement that Mahler originally wrote for his Symphony No. 1. Mahler couldn't make up his mind about "Blumine"; he deleted it from the symphony in 1893, then put it back in, then seemingly discarded it permanently by 1899. "Blumine" wasn't heard again until 1967 as the Mahler boom gathered steam, but few conductors play it these days, and almost never within the context of the symphony.
I think this is a missed opportunity, for not only is "Blumine" a plaintive, dream-state intermezzo that sounds like a memento of a lost love -- in this case, Mahler's crush on the singer Johanna Richter -- it also plays a crucial part in the development of the symphony, for the last movement refers directly back to "Blumine." Still, better to hear "Blumine" on its own than not at all, as Tovey maintained a fairly brisk pace with firm rhythm and no excess sentiment, aided by Donald Green's silky trumpet solo.
Hampson picked up the ball from there, for "Songs of a Wayfarer" is about a young man obsessed with grief on his ex-lover's wedding day -- and yes, some of this music also found its way into Mahler's First Symphony. This has long been Hampson's reliable calling card; his 1990 video-recording with Leonard Bernstein remains a mesmerizing experience, and Hampson goes even deeper nowadays. The inflections in his still-smooth, virile baritone were now heartbreaking, the roar of emotion in the third song more anguished.
Finally, Hampson's inspired selection of an encore -- "Rheinlegendchen" from Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" -- had the effect of continuing the story, the thwarted lover throwing his gold ring into the Rhine. Thank the supertitles on the video screens for making the point comprehensible to all.
Dvorak's "New World" Symphony served as the counterweight after intermission -- a conventionally paced performance but far from routine in the execution with a lot of exposed inner detail. Though one left the Hollywood Bowl humming Dvorak's familiar tunes, the shorter Mahler saga had made the deeper impression.