There wasn't reason to expect much, in the way of context or ambition, from what ultimately turned out to be Gustavo Dudamel's extraordinary cycle of Schubert symphonies completed over the weekend with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Schubert attempted 13. He completed seven, plus two movements of another, the Eighth ("Unfinished"), the symphony for which he is best known. The final Ninth is his one and only full symphonic masterpiece. The first six, written between the ages of 16 and 21, are juvenilia, if juvenilia with a voice even Mozart yet hadn't found at that age.
But compared with the other symphony cycles that have been a notable part of Dudamel's eight years as music director of the L.A. Phil, beginning with his historic cycle of Mahler's nine, Schubert's symphonies don't express a worldview. There are no opportunities for finding the political or spiritual connotations that Dudamel does in Beethoven's nine. Dudamel could offer nothing of the personal journey that he brought to his Tchaikovsky cycle or the magisterial Romanticism of his Brahms cycle. Schubert's are symphonies that provide no extra-musical material.
In a conversation with the conductor a week before he began his Schubert series, we hardly got around to Schubert at all. Dudamel briefly mentioned that one of his missions has been to build a core repertory — the secret, he believes, of the L.A. Phil's acclaimed flexibility, making it possible for the ensemble to produce more varied and adventurous programming, as well as far more new music, than any other major symphony. He then quickly changed the subject to Venezuela. The political crisis in Dudamel's native country was among more pressing issues.
This is no doubt the most difficult period in the 36-year-old conductor's previously charmed life. As Dudamel, who is the symbol of Venezuela's government-supported El Sistema music education program, attempts to find common cause in a divided country, he finds himself instead no longer universally loved by Venezuelans, caught between a rock and a hard place in the middle of volatile protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
The L.A. Phil performed the First and Second symphonies just after a 17-year-old El Sistema musician was killed in a protest march — a few days after Dudamel had told The Times that he supported the right for students to peaceably protest. He said that despite photos of El Sistema leaders marching (presumably under orders) in support of the government.
Dudamel dedicated the concert to the slain youth and the other victims of violence. He then made Schubert's First symphony come to life, the work of a 17-year-old composer at the start of one of the greatest, if unconscionably brief, careers in all music. This, Dudamel seemed to be saying, is what can be lost unless leaders put the people first.
The world continued to crash into Schubert symphonies over the next two weeks. The second program included Schubert's Fourth, his so-called "Tragic" symphony. Here a young man attempts to deal with full-sized emotions. Dudamel did not look for depth that is not there, but rather for the sincerity that is. In some ways that proved even more moving than the obvious horrors in the program's Mahler song "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs of the Dead Children"), sung with determined feeling by baritone Matthias Goerne.
Then on Thursday night, between the Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, the conductor and L.A. Phil board Chairman Jay Rasulo paid tribute to the orchestra's outgoing president and chief executive, Deborah Borda. Under Dudamel, the Fifth, which best foretells Schubert's lyric gift (and is consequently the one early Schubert symphony with legs), became an exercise in buoyancy as if a maestro were lovingly dancing Borda off the stage.
Only the final program, on Saturday, seemed to be a normal night. Here were Schubert's "Unfinished" and the Ninth, the latter known as the "Great" not because it is great (which it is) but because of its expansive size. In between were four songs from Mahler's folksy "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" ("The Youth's Magic Horn"), sung by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke.
Dudamel put the emotional weight of the whole cycle on the two movements of the "Unfinished." It was a slow performance. In the early symphonies, the orchestra had played with undiminished verve and virtuosity, along with an ever agreeable lightness of touch. Here it dug deep.
Cooke, who was a late replacement for Elina Garanca, had been slightly remote in Mahler's farewell-to-the-world "Rückert Songs" two nights earlier, as though this were not the time to lay it on thick. But in the selection from "Wunderhorn" on Saturday, she was luminous. She and Dudamel again remained relatively restrained, and in so doing only added exceptional clarity to "Das Irdische Leben," the cry of a starving child for bread.
"Humanity is in the greatest need! / Humanity is in the greatest pain!" is how the last song, "Urlicht," opens, and Mahler's wonder horn is the call of heaven. Again, Cooke and Dudamel let the song sink in.
This might have seemed the perfect time for going all triumphantly out with Schubert's "Great." The composer finished it at 29, two years before his death. It is a vast symphony, opening with a heroic flourish. Lasting close to an hour in a slow performance that honors all the repeats, the "Great" is an example of what is often called Schubert's heavenly length. Leonard Bernstein at the end of his life, as Wilhelm Furtwängler had before him, treated the Ninth as heralding the age of the Romantic symphony.
Dudamel did the astonishing opposite. While the orchestra was relatively large, he kept the performance unusually light. He dashed through the score. He punched out crisp rhythms as if he already had his mind on the early 20th century works he turns to in the next two weeks focusing on Bartók, Janácek and Stravinsky. Details sizzled. At the same time lyric lines were expansive. Dudamel was not religious about repeats, and the symphony lasted just a little over 45 minutes.
The Ninth came just a dozen years after the First; hence, Dudamel treated the Ninth more as continuation than culmination. He reminded us that Schubert was still a young man going places, though they were places never reached. In doing so with these masterful performances, the Schubert cycle became Dudamel's strongest and most insightful statement yet of why he serves youth. In a time of trial, that may be what is most needed to change a world in need of changing.