Last weekend, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and musical director and conductor Gustavo Dudamel presented a program marked by contrast. The orchestra performed Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony, a colossal turn-of-the-century work, and a relatively new concerto by contemporary Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz, bridging the wide gap between late German romanticism and Mexican postmodernism.
The violin concerto “Altar de cuerda” (“String altar”) is the last in a series of seven “musical altars” written by Ortiz. Although the pieces are not explicitly religious, Ortiz imbues them with a spiritual life, allowing for postmodern expressions of syncretism and converging artistic disciplines.
Despite Ortiz’s disposition towards avant-garde musical constructions, the concerto adopts the traditional fast-slow-fast structuring that usually occurs over three movements. However, within these movements, a myriad of exciting techniques breathe new life into the age-old form. The three movements, “Morisco chilango”, “Canto abierto” and “Maya deco”, each present aspects of Mexican art and history, provoking a reflection on cultural identity.
Ortiz’s wide palette of colors and effects evokes diverse impressions of Mexican culture. Most striking was the use of tuned glasses in the second movement; the wind section rubbed the lip of tuned crystal glasses at different pitches, creating an ethereal, airy soundscape.
Ortiz’s concerto was performed by 19-year-old violinist María Dueñas, to whom the piece is dedicated. His playing rose to the challenges posed by the concerto, demonstrating dazzling virtuosity. Dueñas and Dudamel showed an immense amount of chemistry, resulting in a tight, high-tension performance. Always at the forefront of new music, the Philharmonie treated the concerto with seriousness and zeal.
In the end, however, the crowning glory of the evening was the presentation of Mahler’s first symphony, often referred to as the “Titan”. Under Dudamel’s direction, the LA Philharmonic gave a stunning performance, pulling no punches, but instead all the stops.
When performing Mahler, rhythm management dominates the whole process. Known for his large-scale symphonies, his works can often span an hour or more – and the First Symphony was no different. As Mahler wrote to his fellow symphonist, Jean Sibelius: “A symphony must be like the world. It must encompass everything.
Facing the bloated form, the Philharmonic presented an interpretation that demanded full attention throughout the performance. Engaging in Mahler’s neurotically detailed score, the musicians really leaned into nuance, providing a wide array of orchestral color.
The first movement began in a hazy burst, the strings producing an eerie harmonic base, above which various motivic ideas were given by the winds. Little by little, the movement gave way to the lyricism so essential to German romanticism. Featuring a theme from Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer,” the music suggested pastoralism and natural beauty (an idea punctuated by various “cuckoo clocks” echoing through the woods). Finally, we came to an emotional conclusion, with raucous winds rushing in until the end.
The Philharmonie performed the second movement with unparalleled character. The harshness of the low strings combined with the fiery contributions of the winds recalled a Bavarian quality, as if it came from a Viennese beer tavern. Despite extensive use of rubato, the musicians remained exactly in sync throughout the movement, allowing the audience to waltz with them.
In stark contrast to the first two movements, the third offers a very contrasting tone. Launching the folk tune “Bruder Martin” (also known as “Frère Jacques”) in minor key, the mood became brooding and funereal, saturated with a typical Mahlerian flavor – indeed, even moments of relief klezmer-y occasionally occurred throughout the piece. While a flat-footed performance might have led to a cartoonish, kitsch funeral march, the Philharmonic’s performance provided real gravity and substance.
Finally, the fiery fourth movement arrived in a tremendous fire. Entitled “Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso,” Mahler unashamedly draws inspiration from Dante’s “Divine Comedy” to formulate a narrative arc in the music. As listeners, our odyssey from Hell to Heaven was the culmination of the vast realm of possibilities offered by the previous three movements.
Although struggle pervades the entire work, the symphony ends triumphantly. With an eight-member horn section, Mahler’s haunting melodies beautifully intoned our arrival into the glorious realms of heaven.
The Philharmonic shone in many aspects of its performance – most remarkably in its maintenance of complete clarity. Despite the leviathan’s orchestration, every line could be heard, with a rhythmic unity strongly present throughout the entire symphony. Dudamel showed complete comfort on the podium – no doubt a product of his longtime familiarity with Mahler’s music.
Dudamel’s program was only the first in a series of three performances of Mahler symphonies this season; the orchestra will perform the Ninth Symphony with USC alumnus Michael Tilson Thomas in January, and Zubin Mehta will conduct the Third Symphony in March. Judging by its titanic beginnings, the Philharmonic Orchestra has a wealth of great musical creations in store.