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Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony in the Great Outdoors

July 26, 2019

Los Angeles Philharmonic

With the ubiquitous presence of Gustav Mahler in our concert life in mind, it’s hard to recall a time not that long ago when performances of wide-screen spectaculars like his Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) were special events — few and far between in number and unforgettable.

Things are different now. No one thinks twice about programming the Second Symphony in a populist outdoor stadium like the Hollywood Bowl, as the considerable (to the casual eye) turnout Tuesday night (July 23) confirmed once again. The familiarity of Mahler’s music has risen to the point where I heard some folks in a nearby box singing along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as if this was Gershwin Night.

Something is lost when the Mahler Second ceases to become an event, and the threat of routine looms. Fortunately, Gustavo Dudamel did what he could to pump things up — and for the most part, he succeeded in resurrecting, if you will, much of what makes the Mahler Second special.

In his tenth season at the helm of the LA Phil, Dudamel has been reasserting his deep commitment to Mahler to the greatest extent since his A-to-Z Mahler Project of 2012. In addition to this performance, he led the Symphonies 1, 8, and 9 during the regular season downtown. (Add Susanna Mälkki’s Mahler Fifth and that constitutes half a complete cycle right there).

One thing that all of Dudamel’s Mahler performances this season have in common is that he has speeded up most of the tempos, with entire works clocking in at an average of roughly five minutes faster than in 2012. This was particularly noticeable in the first movement of the Second Symphony, where brisk tempos augmented by thankfully sharp rhythmic attacks dominated the landscape. He applied some schmaltz to the string glides in the second movement, seemingly aiming at a Viennese flavor yet not really getting there. But the third movement was great; the rhythm swung even with the swift pacing and the big climax came off grandly.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Larsson opened the “Urlicht” (Primeval light) movement with a deep, mellow timbre and continued tremulously as a stray helicopter ignored the Bowl’s searchlights and disrupted the quiet meditation for one crucial minute. As in 2012, Gustavo had the drama and mystery of the expansive fifth movement tightly in his grip, maintaining the strong militant rhythm through the marches, drawing out the snare drum rolls to mighty crescendos, easing into the hushed choral entrance slowly and gracefully. The soprano doesn’t have much to do in the finale, but Miah Persson did it radiantly with a darkish tone color. The Los Angeles Master Chorale was its usual robust, ultimately fervent self.

Unlike past performances of the Mahler Second out here, this one didn’t use the unique spatial effect of having horn and oboe players perched on top of the light towers when Mahler calls for distant solos; they were elsewhere offstage. The outboard brass band in the fifth movement sounded as if it was playing in the open air somewhere to the left of the Bowl’s shell. The sound system, however improved over the years, couldn’t really handle the massive outpourings of choral and orchestral sound near the end without distortion and the electronic organ could barely be heard.

Nevertheless, with Dudamel’s careful pacing guiding the way, the huge choral/orchestral conclusion came off with plenty of power. In that moment, it was possible to believe that the “Resurrection” Symphony could still deliver an overwhelming visceral and emotional impact after many repetitions — or so the chills down my neck and back told me.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.