Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Union of Two Families; a Review of Mahler 8 on LAPhil Live-in-HD

Mahler's massive Symphony No. 8 was a work engineered to make an impression.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Símon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela joined together on the same stage in Caracas, Venezuela to close the Mahler Project undertaken by conductor Gustavo Dudamel with a massive performance of Mahler 8 that was transmitted as part of the LAPhil Live-in-HD series.

During the preconcert documentary, Dudamel called the endeavor "the union of two families."

It was an orchestra of more than 200 players and more than 1,000 choristers, and the sound was big. Really big. But the event itself had a significance that transcended its massiveness.

The National Youth Choir of Venezuela was grouped in front, and one could hear gradations of older singers behind them that seemed to stretch in every direction. Some camera angles that revealed the vast number of singers present were simply amazing. The musicians of the Símon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and the singers documented the range of ages and experiences from the entire system of musical education called "el Sistema." It was a sounding index of miraculous successes. It was inspiring.

Mahler 8 has a significant chamber music side that was infrequently captured in this performance, and it was hard to gauge the balances of the soloists in the cinema--particularly in the solo ensembles. There were so many singers that there was no room for benches. The singers stood throughout the performance. This caused noticeable fatigue by the end. But the sweep of the symphony was still delivered intact.

A dramatic touch was created when the Mater Gloriosa came into position on the balcony just after the Doctor Marianus episode with the choral line "Dir, der Unberührbaren (To you, the immaculate)." The presence of the Mater Gloriosa this early in the second movement helped us to properly place her significance. Kiera Duffy sang this brief but structural music with tenderness and fire. I first reviewed Duffy in 2006 at Tanglewood as Rose in Carter's "What Next" and the next season as Despina in Ira Siff's production of Così.

Dudamel was superb in his preconcert discussions of the music. However, because this work consists of two huge panels of complicated music, it would have been better to have even more narrative around the kind of listening strategies he advocated. There was a 20-minute intermission just before the concert started and then both movements were played without break. The design felt strange at first but it worked, even though we did not need a full 20-minute break.

The cinema in which I watched the event had a solid audience. Bring these events with more regularity and this following will expand. The only other announced event will not be a live transmission but a screening of the LAPhil season opening Gershwin concert featuring Herbie Hancock. That event will be in cinemas on March 18.

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