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LA Phil’s Mahler 8 One for the Books

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
05/30/2019 -  & May 31, June 2*, 2019
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major
Tamara Wilson (soprano 1), Leah Crocetto (soprano 2), Erin Morley (soprano 3), Mihoko Fujimura (alto 1), Tamara Mumford (alto 2), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Ryan McKinny (baritone), Morris Robinson (bass)
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon (artistic director), Pacific Chorale, Robert Istad (artistic director), Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz (artistic director), National Children’s Chorus, Luke McEndarfer (artistic director), Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)

G. Dudamel (© Chris Christodoulou)

The LA Phil’s season-closing concert Sunday afternoon was one for the books. And how could it not be? The program was Mahler’s titanic Eighth Symphony and it was being recorded for future audio release. This was the first time Dudamel would conduct Mahler’s Eighth since 2012 when he led a complete cycle of the composer’s works that brought together the Angelenos and his outstanding Venezuelan band. Instead of a literal “Symphony of a Thousand,” this time it would be a mere “Symphony of Several Hundred.” But this 2019 rendition had a distinct advantage: it would be performed in Walt Disney Concert Hall instead of the cavernous Shrine Auditorium and the results Sunday were undeniable.

It’s hard not to begin with the gem that is Disney Hall. The home of the LA Phil for over 15 years now, it is a magical place to watch a concert: from the majestic sail-shaped exterior, to the mature flowering garden, and the warm, inviting wood-wrapped interior, the hall is an enveloping experience. Of course, it is also a sublime acoustic, one that was used to breathtaking effect in Mahler. A performance of the Eighth Symphony, a staggeringly complex piece, can easily be overwhelmed by the weight of its own demands: double chorus, children’s chorus, 8 soloists and full orchestra. This “universe of sound” is colossal. And while Sunday’s performance was that, the clarity, precision and definition of each contributor and ensemble was remarkable.

From the very first notes, the forces performed with nimbleness. The combined forces of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Pacific Chorale sailed through Mahler’s cascading lines with rich sonority. This was no easy feat given Maestro Dudamel’s brisk, surging tempi. Yet they excelled at the task, responsive to the conductor’s dynamics and jabbing, imploring gestures. The combined children’s choruses also were up to the task, singing with a winning tone. The sheer amount of sound they were all able to produce was impressive; more impressive was the control displayed throughout the performance. The contrasts in volume at “Infirma nostri” and the beginning of the second part were expertly done, with no loss in brilliance of tone. And it again played to the quality of the acoustic when the solo instruments, particularly Martin Chalifour’s, were perfectly distinct in the detailed soundscape of the hall.

The vocal soloists were an impressive cast. Soprano Tamara Wilson was a standout. With an endless supply of phrase and impeccable intonation, she dispatched the daunting phrases of the first movement with little effort and continued to astonish with gorgeous high notes as Magna Peccatrix in the second part. The other women of the ensemble were uniformly outstanding with alto Tamara Mumford as a luxury casting as Maria Aegyptiaca and Mezzo Mihoko Fujimura with an impressively rich tone and sensitive musicianship. Soprano Leah Corcetto has a powerful instrument that complimented Wilson’s extremely well and made for some thrilling moments. Erin Morley appeared on high as Mater Gloriosa, singing with sublime purity of tone and impossibly soft and controlled phrases. This was another brilliant use of the immersive space of the hall as she entered, looking angelic, perched in front of the organ above the chorus.

The gentlemen certainly were impassioned with veteran tenor Simon O’Neill lending an Italiante lyricism to his part despite some of the highest notes sounding pressed. Ryan McKinny’s Pater Ecstaticus was fervent in his “Ewiger Wonnebrand” with a burnished, gravely sound that gave way to a thrilling upper range. Bass Morris Robinson gave a tour-de-force performance with his uniquely dark sound a thrilling compliment to his imposing stature and engaging stage presence.

The outstanding playing of the orchestra supported the entire enterprise and supplied a diverse palette for Dudamel to use to great effect. The range of colors from the strings alone was impressive, shimmering and delicate and desperate and seeking the next. The brass, remarkably balanced, were majestic and thrilling. Woodwinds were spirited, particularly in the second part when Dudamel played up the more idyllic passages. Percussion and keyboards were a solid foundation for the band.

Maestro Dudamel lead with purpose. This was a brisk, but never rushed, Mahler 8. It suited not only his performers but also the maestro himself. Exuberant, joyous, and playful, Dudamel was in complete control, barely referencing the score in front of him. It was also refreshingly un-fussy with no labored transitions (for instance “Accende lumen” and “Allen’s Vergängliche”). Dudamel was an impassioned advocate not only for this music but also his interpretation of its unabashed nature. Yet just as rewarding was his pace of the more exposed moments of the second part which never felt belabored and the dynamics of which he demanded restraint.

Dudamel’s balancing act, abetted by the aforementioned sound qualities of the hall, are what made this such a special performance. The detail of every moment, loud or soft, was crystal clear. From the staggering amount of sound at “Accende lumen,” with every consonant perfectly delineated, to the soft harmonium in the second part, every detail was accounted for and expertly delivered (despite a minor timpani/brass mishap at the conclusion). Every aural angle imaginable was filled with glorious sound, including the rear, compliments of the offstage brass from the top balcony. If the forthcoming recording is half as good at capturing the profundity of sound of the LA Phil’s Mahler 8 as was heard in Disney Hall this weekend, then those not fortunate enough to hear it in person will be in for a treat indeed.

Matthew Richard Martinez



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