Arts & Events

Gustavo Dudamel & Los Angeles Philharmonic Perform Mahler’s 9th Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 04, 2016 - 11:04:00 AM

In the second of two concerts at Davies Hall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, their Music Director Gustavo Dudamel led his orchestra in a gripping performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.9 in D Major. Mahler’s 9th was his last completed symphony; and although upon finishing it he immediately began a never completed 10th Symphony, his 9th is often considered the composer’s farewell to the world. However, some, including Gustavo Dudamel, see Mahler’s 9th Symphony as the composer’s reaffirmation of life even in the shadow of death. To be sure, shadows of death certainly hung over this symphony’s composition. Mahler began writing it in 1909, two years after the sudden death of his four and a half year-old daughter Maria, who succumbed to scarlet fever and diphtheria. A few days later Mahler himself was diagnosed with serious heart problems and was put on a regimen of restricted activity. Leonard Bernstein suggested that the opening measures of Mahler’s 9th Symphony proceed with a halting rhythm that may reflect Mahler’s awareness of his own faltering heartbeat. Mahler never lived to hear his 9th Symphony performed. His friend Bruno Walter conducted the premiere with the Vienna Philharmonic eleven months after Mahler’s death on May 18, 1911. 

With Gustavo Dudamel conducting, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played this symphony’s opening measures as if they were forlorn sighs, each repeated two-note phrase reminiscent of inhalation/exhalation and ending with a descent. Cellos and horn set the tone, aided by a harp, then another horn. A melody was introduced by the second violins, and this melody became a duet when a horn picked it up and engaged with the strings. The accompaniment was led by the harp, clarinet and lower strings. An element of sharp anguish intervened as the orchestra ratcheted up in volume in a stormy build-up of tension, all based, however, on the halting rhythm of the binary opening notes. After a searing trumpet blast signaled a certain climax of anguish, the music suddenly became calm again. A coda offered the slowest tempo yet and a quiet fading away of sound, as the opening movement went silent.  

The second movement features three different dance-tunes – a Ländler, full of leisurely exuberance, a quicker paced waltz, and another Ländler, this one starting out in leisurely fashion but becoming almost feverish. In contrast to the first movement, here there is no introspection, and all is earthbound. The third movement, marked Rondo burleske, functions almost in the way Mahler’s scherzos function. That is, it offers violent energy and a bizarre character full of bitterness and scorn, culminating in a fiercely sardonic fortissimo climax.  

The fourth and final movement, after an opening outcry of the violins, returns us to the introspection of the opening movement. A lonely bassoon offers a brief poignant phrase. There ensue alternations of dynamics reminiscent of Bruckner, until the quiet mood wins out and the music begins slowly to disintegrate. In whispered tones and faltering rhythms, Mahler’s 9th Symphony drifts gradually and peacefully into silence, leaving us feeling both forlorn and yet serene in resignation. Long after the last infinitely poignant note had faded away, Gustavo Dudamel remained taut, totally and intensely immersed in the music, as if he were reluctant to break its somber yet profound mood. He held this taut position for a long minute, finally letting his arms drop and his body relax, thereby inspiring an appreciative audience to burst into enthusiastic applause in appreciation of Dudamel’s commitment to this music and a gripping performance of Mahler’s immensely moving 9th Symphony.