Over the years, we have attended hundreds of symphonic concerts, and more than a few stand out in our memory as wondrous experiences. But we had never experienced anything like the overpowering moment that Gustavo Dudamel provided a packed-house at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) earlier this month.
Maestro Dudamel, for those unaware of the name, is the Music and Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he and his 100+ musicians were performing on the Jackson Hall stage at Mondavi for the first time in the history of the venue. And the sole work on the program was Gustav Mahler’s demanding Ninth Symphony, which is one of the most difficult works in the repertoire, both for orchestras and audiences.
It is difficult for orchestras because of the many complex and challenging parts that are written for all sections of the orchestra. At various times in the four movement work, many of the musicians are required to play difficult solos, and the requirements of technical proficiency extend to all of the musicians when their respective sections are called on to lead a particular portion of the score.
The work is difficult for audiences because it is long (this particular performance ran one hour and twenty-five minutes) and complicated, with passages that tax the patience of all but the most devoted and knowledgeable listener. We had only heard the Ninth performed one other time (in 1992 when Carter Nice led an excellent performance by the Sacramento Symphony), and while our memory of that performance is positive, we also knew that it could be a struggle to sit through the entire work if the performance was not of the highest professional quality.
On that point, we needn’t have been concerned. The LA Phil is a marvelous orchestra, with great players in most of the principal positions and solid support from the players throughout each section. And in Dudamel, the musicians have a superb conductor who conducts to the musicians, not the audience. This approach is a rarity in big-name conductors, most of whom essentially leave the musicians on their own (except for key entries and stops) while they guide the audience through the work. Dudamel conducts to the musicians; he is an orchestra’s conductor.
And his conducting of the Ninth was a joy to witness. Conducting the entire work without a score, he directed each section and each soloist through each passage as if his entire focus was on those particular musicians. And yet he also had command of the entire orchestra so that every entry was in perfect unison, every chord was precisely struck, every change in tempo or intensity was clearly indicated.
The first movement was exquisite. It is a soft Andante, and Dudamel stretched it out to allow the power of its announcement (two-thirds of the way through) of the death theme to hit squarely on the emotions of the audience. (The Ninth is a clear ode to death, composed as Mahler was dying of heart disease.) The second movement, by contrast, is much lighter in tone, starting as it does with a folksy theme. But it turns quickly into a darker dance (waltz-like) before being swallowed up in the original theme. The third movement is the most ferocious of the symphony. In a different setting, it could have been the fourth, the finale.
But here, it is the composer’s statement of the rush of life, of the complexity and furor that life at its fullest can be. It ends with a powerful succession of chords that the orchestra hit perfectly. In fact, we were surprised that it didn’t elicit considerable applause (as Mondavi audiences have frequently offered at the end of highly appreciated movements in the past). But on this occasion, the audience remained silent, perhaps transfixed, at this point, by the greatness of the music, the musicians, and the conductor.
The fourth movement is the death movement, in which the music notes the slow and inexorable decline to the cessation of life functions. It is a profoundly grand movement that almost begs for reverence, and on this occasion the orchestra and its conductor delivered it in full measure, leading to that symphonic moment that was greater than any we have ever experienced.
The last six minutes of the fourth proceed in tonal measure from piano (p) to pianissimo (pp) and then to ppp and finally to pppp. It is a majestically powerful section of music, evoking the deepest emotions, the kind that can easily be expressed with tears. But on this occasion, Mr. Dudamel took the experience even deeper. As the last notes were played ever so softly, he held them, with his hands raised over his head, indicating to his musicians to allow the final chord to pass into the hall leaving the large room in complete silence. (Remarkably, during this final two minutes, all coughing and sneezing in the audience also ceased, so that the hall and all 1,600 of its inhabitants sat in complete silence.)
And then, as the silence continued, Dudamel slowly, almost imperceptibly, began to lower his hands. At the same time, the musicians, in step with him, began to lower their instruments. The effect was indescribably profound. No one in the room made a sound; Dudamel and his musicians continued their slow, inexorable relaxation of the positions. The entire scene lasted for almost a full minute, during which time we wept silently. It was that beautiful, that special, that powerful: a symphonic moment never to be forgotten, to be cherished forever.