Gustavo Dudamel's Mahler project

It begins innocently enough, with sleigh bells. On Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Gustavo Dudamel will conduct Mahler's most classical, least angst-ridden symphony, the Fourth, which opens with frolicsome jingling and ends in angelic folk song.

But that's just the start of a project so ambitious as to be a little crazy, to use one of Dudamel's favorite words, and the word he, himself, chose to describe the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Mahler Project during a conversation in his office at Disney Hall. Over slightly more than three weeks, Dudamel will conduct the nine symphonies Mahler completed plus the opening Adagio movement of the unfinished Tenth with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolivar Orchestra. Each symphony — the short ones can last an hour — is an emotionally charged epic, simultaneously a window onto the world at large and an aperture into a complex and often conflicted composer's soul. Each symphony is a draining physical and spiritual experience for musicians and audiences alike. Each symphony is, like life, a little (and some more than a little) crazy.

The L.A. Phil has been assigned the First, Fourth, Sixth, Ninth and the Tenth's Adagio. The Bolivars (Dudamel is their artistic director) fly in from Venezuela for the Second, Third, Fifth and Seventh. Both orchestras and 16 Southland choruses combine for the Eighth ("Symphony of a Thousand") at the Shrine Auditorium. Two days after finishing the L.A. concerts, Dudamel will repeat the whole cycle in Caracas over 12 days, again with the Bolivars and the L.A. Phil.

Mahler has become one of the most popular of all symphonists in recent years, and has been celebrated with symphony cycles in New York and Europe. Still, this much Mahler in such a concentrated time is a first for a single conductor. Dudamel may raise the stakes even higher by conducting all this Mahler from memory, likely another first. The most obvious question is: Why? Is Dudamel climbing a musical Everest because he can? Is he on a quest? Is he obsessed with Mahler? Is this a publicity stunt?

On the sunny October afternoon I met with Dudamel, Mahler was, in fact, far from his mind. Wearing a colorful T-shirt and jeans, he had just come from rehearsing Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and a difficult modern work by the late Canadian composer Claude Vivier, which he was conducting for the first time. He had, he said, been studying "like crazy" a Bartók piano concerto he was to rehearse the next morning with Yefim Bronfman (our interview was interrupted with the news that Bronfman had a broken finger, and Dudamel needed to come up with a substitute orchestral work that afternoon). Also on his plate were the world premiere of Enrico Chapela's electric cello concerto and his first time with Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" on L.A. Phil programs the following two weeks.

But he made himself an espresso and jumped into Mahler's world with good-natured enthusiasm.

Mahler has played a major role in Dudamel's career. It was with the composer's Fifth Symphony that he won the 2004 Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany, catapulting him to fame. Subsequent performances of the Fifth with the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra (now the Simón Bolivar Orchestra) on tour in Europe and the U.S., as well as on recording, helped him gain star status.

"It is funny," Dudamel recalled, "because my first encounter with Mahler was a mistake. A friend gave me a CD of the 'Pathétique' Symphony as a Christmas present. I went home, and I put on the CD expecting to listen to Tchaikovsky. But it started ta ta ta taaa" — Dudamel sings the opening trumpet fanfare of Mahler's Fifth. Someone in the record store, it seems, inadvertently switched discs.

Dudamel, 10 at the time, listened to the symphony several times, not knowing what to make of it. "It was too long for me. I didn't understand it at first, but then I fell in love, in love, in love."

Around the same time he noticed a score of the trombone part of Mahler's First laying around the house. Though a violinist, Dudamel picked up his father's trombone and began to teach himself to play the instrument by ear.

That part remains the extent of Dudamel's trombone repertory, and he dismisses it as child's play. His first serious encounter with Mahler took place six years later when his mentor — José Antonio Abreu, the founder of the famed Venezuelan music education program El Sistema — told him it was time to learn the First Symphony for real.

"I had to sing every part for him," Dudamel recalls. "Here's the English horn together with the piccolo. This was the way he taught me to memorize, because to conduct Mahler you have to know everything, and that opened the door to Mahler's world for me."

That musical world, Dudamel says, was unlike any he had known. "For me to rehearse with a children's orchestra a Mahler symphony was to really work. We had three or four weeks of rehearsal with the orchestra, every day eight or nine hours, putting the First together. I had been conducting Tchaikovsky a lot and Beethoven, but Mahler was different."

The colors and expression and dynamics of Mahler change constantly. Mahler's performing directions are far more specific than any composer before him, often asking for a new kind of expression in every measure.

"It was quite a job," Dudamel says with a laugh, "but I loved the process. That is when I became a Mahler lover."

A Mahler lover, yes, but might not Mahler freak be more the point of the Mahler Project? "I have to be honest, it was not that 'since I love Mahler I have to do this,'" Dudamel explains. "And it was not 'let's take the risk.'"

A uniquely experienced conductor at 30 (he will turn 31 during the January concerts), Dudamel admits his attraction to "crazy" challenges. Still, he maintains that the larger appeal is the way in which Mahler looms so large in his career and imagination. He is driven to get deeper into the composer. He wants to follow the journey from the young man who in his late 20s wrote what might be the most confident first symphony in history to the dying composer who succumbed to a heart infection at 50 in 1911, by which time he seemed to have absorbed the weight of the world in his music.

Dudamel also describes what will be his first time through all the Mahler symphonies as a personal journey, albeit with the cooperation of a great many others. The Mahler Eighth at the Shrine will have at least 1,050 performers; in Caracas, it will top 1,600. The total audiences for the L.A. and Caracas concerts as well for the LA Phil Live HD broadcast in movie theaters of the Caracas Eighth on Feb. 18 could easily exceed 100,000.

Dudamel has performed the First, Second, Fifth and Ninth extensively, but he confesses that he just recently has been coming to grips with some of the others, and he's never conducted the Eighth or the Adagio of the Tenth. "To love Mahler, you have to love from the beginning to the end," he says, "and the way to do that is to try."

He won't be taking the symphonies in strictly chronological order, partly because of the logistics of dealing with the two orchestras and also because the L.A. Phil concerts are to be repeated while the Bolivars play the symphonies only once. And that means there will be days when he will rehearse one or more symphonies during the daytime and perform yet another at night.

"It's a physical challenge. It's a spiritual challenge," Dudamel says, looking a little awe-struck. And he describes mental exercises he has devised to help him prepare. "I'm studying almost every day a different symphony, not returning to any one for a week," he says. Sometimes he will pick a movement randomly to "check to see if things are here in my brain."

Dudamel also notes this is the way his mind works. "I love to read different books on completely different subjects at the same time," he says. "I cannot focus on one. I read a few pages of literature, then I jump to philosophy and at the same time I'm reading biographies of Mahler."

But then Mahler symphonies work that way too. "A symphony is like the world," Mahler famously said, and he was the first composer to open the symphony to a whole world of musics, including the popular and folk music of his day. He was both prescient Modernist and traditionalist. He was even, before Modernism, already a Postmodernist, with his unprecedented emphasis on irony, leaving his symphonies open to multiple interpretations.

Dudamel is himself a hard Mahler interpreter to pin down. He can seem shockingly spontaneous as he builds to a climax or lets his fancy focus on individual passages. Tempos are sometimes extreme. Yet like a chess player thinking ahead several moves, he has the ability to diligently prepare the way for those seemingly spontaneous outbursts.

"I think 'duality' is the right word to describe Mahler's music," Dudamel continues. "Almost every bar has a different indication. But at the same time you have to interpret those indications so that you make it your own.

"Mahler changed his own interpretations. When you compare timing of movements, the same music could be completely different one year later. I think that is the beautiful thing about Mahler. You know that he was really looking for something, but he was at the same time open to change.

"He said once that he wanted the people to touch his music. A melody in Mahler can describe for one person a desperate feeling or mourning, but for another it is happiness."

So in the spirit of Dudamel's considered sponteneity, I asked him to free associate about the symphonies.

The First is the death of the hero, and to Dudamel that leads directly to the Second, "The Resurrection," with its huge choral Finale. It reminds him of the Sistine Chapel. "When you have the last choir you are so close to creation."

The Third is a nature symphony. "He's touching everything — nature, animals, the seasons, philosophy, man, Nietzsche. Then angels, children, youth, love. It's like reading a book of life."

For the classical Fourth, Dudamel begins to sing the opening. "It's so simple and rustic. Suddenly he goes back to the 18th century. I love that."

The Fifth brings memories of the Bamberg competition. "I remember I was not focused to win. I had been an assistant conductor to Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic for three months, and I was looking forward to going home to Caracas."

Caught unawares when he was announced the winner, Dudamel was expected to conduct the full symphony with but a single rehearsal. "But the concert was good, it was beautiful," he says. Esa-Pekka Salonen was a judge, and he arranged for Dudamel to make his U.S. debut with the L.A. Phil. "So this is a symphony that means a lot to me."

With the Sixth, Dudamel's Rorschach reaction is to flash on the 1960s bumper sticker "Mahler Grooves," which Leonard Bernstein glued onto his score.

"I love this," Dudamel enthuses. "It's a very dark symphony. It's like when you are in a movie that is all the time dark. You have some light, but even the light is dark. But it's not depressing."

Dudamel has only lately been conducting the weird Seventh, although he emphasizes that he's studied it for years. He sings the insistent opening of the first movement, which reminds him of an icebreaker. "There's nothing stopping that. The scherzo is amazing. And scary. It's like a ghost dancing."

The Eighth — "huge" but "human" — is an adventure to be, as is the Tenth, "the most abstract Mahler," "a labyrinth," "about going to a new place."

The Ninth, which Dudamel conducted a year ago in Disney Hall and then took on his first European tour with the L.A. Phil, is for him about letting go. "It's not about passing to another life but to another level.

"And that is amazing too."

mark.swed@latimes.com

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