I have been skeptical of the Gustavo Dudamel phenomenon, because it seems like more a product of media hype than it does of musical inspiration. It was nice to see a younger-than-average crowd at the Musikverein for Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Vienna tour concert on Friday (and I met an older woman who was at her first Musikverein concert, good to see her too), but I’m afraid that my first experience of Dudamel live was musically disappointing.
Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 9 is a challenge for any conductor, and I don’t think it’s one Dudamel has met yet. But to start, the orchestra sounded quite good. This was actually my first time hearing the LA Phil live, but it nevertheless felt like a homecoming for me, because they do sound American. The strings have more depth than many American orchestras, but I could ID the big brass and mellow woodwinds immediately.
It’s difficult to trace a path through the symphony’s discursive first movement. Dudamel got off to a technically secure start, with clear textures and good coordination, but the character was strangely broad, warm, and serene, lacking dynamic differentiation and movement through the many twists and turns of tempo. Mahler’s essential world-weariness and bitterness was completely lacking, and the lack of emotional momentum made the movement less a journey than an amble between equally important sights. Occasionally the winds and strings would lose each other a bit, and the brass section would drown everyone else out, but the lack of detail and of dynamic contrast were larger problems for me.
Dudamel seemed to take the bounciness of the second movement’s Ländler at face value, and it came across as cuter and less sarcastic than usual. This worked better than I expected, and by whipping the waltz up into something a little exciting, the piece finally began to go somewhere, though it still seemed oddly small-scale. The third movement was definitely the highlight of the performance, with vehement, vicious playing at a murderous tempo. Here, a certain lack of depth worked. The last movement was odd, taken at a very slow tempo (I think the running time was around 28 minutes), and displaying less resignation than bold passion. While this one-dimensional, deeply earnest, Beethovenian approach seems just wrong to me, it did work in a way, and the string sound continued to be good. But the various movements never quite added up to anything. I’m not saying that Bernstein morbidity is the only valid approach to this piece, in fact my favorite recording is austere Boulez, but without more character differentiation and gravitas, you just don’t have Mahler.
Daniele Gatti will be conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker in this symphony at the Staatsoper on May 18, which is such a crazy idea it just might work.
Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Musikverein, 2/4/2011. Mahler, Symphony No. 9.