Photo: Thomas Hampson sings Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer," with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Credit: Francine Orr
The Mahler Project, begun Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, is big.
Los Angeles Philharmonic officials have calculated that by the time Gustavo Dudamel finishes performing the nine complete symphonies, the Adagio of the Tenth and “Songs of a Wayfarer” with the L.A. Phil and Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, he will have conducted, most likely from memory, more than 70 hours of Mahler in rehearsal and concert in less than a month. With a mere day’s break to fly to Venezuela, Dudamel then reboots the whole shebang in Caracas.
The physical and mental challenges are plenty grueling, but the psychic ones may prove greater still. Mahler’s are the symphonies of life’s major moments, and no conductor has ever packed so many of them into so compact a period. An intemperate project perhaps, but Dudamel has eased his way into it by prudently pacing himself.
With a little help from a friend, Dudamel gives himself time to warm up by beginning the concert with Mahler’s early “Songs of a Wayfarer.” The imposing Thomas Hampson was soloist, and that meant that for its first 25 minutes, the Mahler Project became the Hampson Project.
The American baritone, of course, happens to be a master Mahler singer. Twenty-two years ago, he recorded these four songs with Leonard Bernstein, a young man inspiring a sublime Mahler conductor nearing his end. In 2009, Hampson recorded the “Wayfarer” songs with Michael Tilson Thomas, which proved a penetrating collaboration by two mature Mahlerians.
For Friday’s performance the baritone dominated, and Dudamel sympathetically accompanied him. The songs, the reaction of a jilted lover, already reveal Mahler’s taste for extreme pathos. In them, lust for life and an irresistible attraction to impending doom are equals and equally persuasive. The cycle, moreover, sets the Mahler stage by previewing melodic themes that would be developed in the First Symphony.
Hampson made every word matter and each song a small moment of compelling theater. The last song, the first of Mahler’s extraordinary funeral marches, might have survived on a tad less sentimentality (Mahler asks for none and none is heard in the MTT recording). But love and sorrow are a continual theme in Mahler, and the scene for nine symphonies was amply set.
Dudamel began the Fourth Symphony with an amiably light touch, almost as a carefree amble. Throughout the opening, he kept the textures delicate, played with details, animated the lower winds. He didn’t rush. There was time to smell the roses, but not for too long.
The Fourth is not all sweetness and it is not all that classical either. Mahler is always up to his expressive tricks. Even here he can turn unexpectedly dark. Anxiety is, in all his music, Mahler’s constant companion.
Dudamel had a playfully athletic approach to sudden mood swings and to those flicking, instantaneous dynamic shifts, to say nothing of those turbulent climaxes in the first and third movements. Even when Mahler thought small, he could still get carried away, and the same can be said for Dudamel.
Irony, a major Mahler trait, and a taste for the grotesque, are there for the exploitation in the second movement, a demonic yet Gemütlichkeit scherzo. The concertmaster plays a fiddle tuned a whole tone higher than normal for folksy effect. Still, Martin Chalifour retained the beautiful tone that he had exhibited in his solos in the first movement. There was elegant horn playing from Andrew Bain.
The slow movement, a series of double variations on an ethereal theme and a doleful one, is meant to glow. Dudamel softened the sleek string tone and basked in the reverie of it all.
The last movement is the Mahler of song, with a soprano singing of a childish heaven. Miah Persson, who had been the radiant soloist in a performance of a Mozart mass with the L.A. Phil five years ago, was a radiant soloist once more.
How well the orchestra will hold out remains to be seen, but the players were clearly primed on Friday, and the playing all evening was exquisite.
Dudamel has begun his Mahler escapade light on his feet. It can’t remain like that, but it’s an appealing way to start out on an epic Romantic journey.