L.A. Philharmonic stuns with Ortiz, Mahler

L.A. Philharmonic hosted Gustavo Dudamel’s orchestra over the weekend, featuring noteworthy pieces being played that were composed by Gustav Mahler and Gabriela Ortiz. (Photo Courtesy of Joey Zanotti)

Last weekend, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Music Director and Conductor Gustavo Dudamel presented a program marked by contrast. The orchestra performed Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony, a colossal fin de siècle work, and a relatively new concerto by a contemporary Mexican composer, Gabriela Ortiz, bridging the wide gap between late German Romanticism and Mexican Postmodernism. 

The violin concerto, “Altar de cuerda” (“String Altar”), comes as the latest in a series of seven “musical altars” written by Ortiz. Though the pieces are not explicitly religious, Ortiz imbues a spiritual life to them, allowing for postmodern expressions of syncretism and converging artistic disciplines. 

Despite Ortiz’s disposition towards forward-thinking musical constructs, the concerto takes on the traditional fast-slow-fast structuring that typically occurs over three movements. However, within those movements, a myriad of exciting techniques give new life to the centuries-old form. The three movements, “Morisco chilango,” “Canto abierto” and “Maya déco,” each present aspects of Mexican art and history, provoking reflection on cultural identity.

Ortiz’s wide palette of colors and effects conjures various impressions of Mexican culture. Most striking was the use of tuned glasses in the second movement; the wind section rubbed the lip of crystal glasses tuned to 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. Her playing met the challenges posed by the concerto, demonstrating a dazzling virtuosity. Dueñas and Dudamel showed an immense amount of chemistry, resulting in a tight, high-voltage rendition. Always a leading voice for new music, the Philharmonic treated the concerto with gravity and zeal. 

Ultimately, though, the crowning event of the night was the presentation of  Mahler’s First Symphony, often referred to as the “Titan.” Under Dudamel’s baton, the L.A. Philharmonic gave a breathtaking performance, pulling no punches, but instead all the stops.

When performing Mahler, pacing management looms over the entire process. Known for his enormously scaled symphonies, his works can often extend to an hour or more  — and the First Symphony was no different. As Mahler famously wrote to his fellow symphonist, Jean Sibelius: “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

In face of the bloated form, the Philharmonic presented a rendition that demanded complete attention for the entire performance. Committing to Mahler’s neurotically detailed score, the musicians truly leaned into the nuances, supplying a broad spectrum of orchestral color. 

The first movement began in a gossamery sheen, with the strings producing an eerie harmonic base, on top of which various motivic ideas were given by the winds. Gradually, the movement gave way to the lyricism so crucial to German Romanticism. Featuring a theme from Mahler’s own “Songs of a Wayfarer,” the music suggested pastoralism and natural beauty (an idea punctuated by various “cuckoos” sounding in the woodwinds). Finally, we reached a stirring conclusion, with raucous winds racing to the end. 

The Philharmonic performed the second movement with unparalleled character. The gruffness of the low strings combined with the spirited contributions from the winds recalled a Bavarian quality, as if coming from a Viennese beer tavern. Despite a heavy use of rubato, the musicians remained exactly synchronized for the movement’s entirety, allowing the audience to waltz along with them.

In stark contrast to the  first two movements, the third provides a starkly contrasting tone. Casting the folk tune “Bruder Martin” (also known as “Frère Jacques”) in minor, the mood became brooding and funereal, saturated with typical Mahlerian flavor — indeed, even klezmer-y moments of relief occasionally occurred throughout the piece. While a flat-footed performance could have led to a cartoonish, kitschy funeral march, the Philarmonic’s performance provided real gravity and substance.

Finally, the fiery fourth movement arrived in a tremendous blaze. Titled “Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso,” Mahler unabashedly draws from Dante’s “Divine Comedy” to formulate a narrative arc in the music. As listeners, our odyssey from the Inferno to Paradiso was a culmination of the vast realm of possibilities provided by the three preceding movements. 

Though struggle pervades the entirety of the work, the symphony ends triumphantly. With an eight-member horn section, Mahler’s soaring melodies beautifully intoned our arrival to the glorious realms of heaven.

The Philharmonic shined in many aspects of their performance  — most remarkably in their maintenance of total clarity. Despite the leviathan orchestration, every line could be heard, with a rhythmic unity strongly present through the entire symphony. Dudamel displayed complete comfort on the podium — no doubt a product of his long-standing familiarity with Mahler’s music. 

Dudamel’s program was just the first in a series of three performances of Mahler symphonies this season; the orchestra will play the Ninth Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas (a USC alumnus) in January, and Zubin Mehta will lead the Third Symphony in March. Judging by their titanic start, the Philharmonic has a wealth of great music-making in store.