Mahler’s farewell symphony, and an emotional goodbye to a colleague

By Truman C. Wang

Over the past decade, I have heard some memorable concerts of the Mahler 9th by the L.A. Phil, under Zubin Mehta (at the old Dorothy Chandler, 2 times) and Pierre Boulez (in Ojai), but it was Gustavo Dudamel’s conducting last Sunday afternoon that will go down in my memory lane as the ne plus ultra of Mahler 9th performances. 

First off, on a sheer technical level, the luminous beauty of the orchestra’s ensemble playing reached new heights in the opening bars of the first movement, leading up to the first ‘soft’ climax at approximately 4:00 into the Andante comodo.  Throughout the 30-minute-long movement, the main Lebewohl/Farewell motif went through a wealth of emotions in the strings, from yearning to poignant to defiant.  

Secondly, the hair-raising dynamic range that Dudamel’s baton is capable of unleashing is now tempered by a sense of architectural proportions and inevitability as it scaled one climax after another like the building blocks of a musical monument.  The very brisk waltz in the second movement never felt too fast, precisely because it was so deftly paced and balanced with each repetition.  Same thing for the Rondo-Burleske.  Its sardonic and nightmarish qualities did not seem over the top but contextually apposite, particularly in this Halloween month.  But Dudamel saved the best to the finale, delivering a superb Adagio with shattering climaxes and, following the final cymbal crash, an unbearable emotional frisson as if the strings were slowly stretched to the breaking point. 

Maestro Dudamel made an announcement before the concert that longtime L.A. Phil violinist Barry Socher had passed away the night before.  The concert was therefore a heartfelt tribute to a beloved colleague (Several musicians could be seen wiping away tears during the Adagio).  Musically, this concert firmly established Gustavo Dudamel as one of the great Mahler conductors of the new century.

L.A. Phil violinist Barry Socher (1948-2016)

L.A. Phil violinist Barry Socher (1948-2016)

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.