Dudamel brings a disciplined Mahler Ninth to the Philharmonic

Sat May 20, 2023 at 12:19 pm
Gustavo Dudamel conducted the New York Philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 Friday night. File photo: Chris Lee

It has been a while since the New York Philharmonic was the hottest ticket in town, but it may have been exactly that Friday night, as music fans packed David Geffen Hall for a look at, and a listen to, the man who is to become the orchestra’s next music director.

Gustavo Dudamel was making his first podium appearance in this city since his appointment to the post last February. Planets revolve slowly in the classical-music world, and the charismatic, Venezuelan-born maestro will not receive the official title “music director-designate” until the 2025-26 season, nor be fully in charge of the orchestra until the season after that.

Furthermore, the evening’s program, which consisted of one work, Gustav Mahler’s deeply introspective Ninth Symphony, was hardly party music.

No matter. The people came to cheer, and cheer they did, for all of 10 seconds, while the conductor acknowledged the warm welcome. Then he turned to face the players.

A familiar Philharmonic problem—horns too loud—manifested itself in the opening bars, masking the strings’ gentle answering phrase. A page or two later, however, Dudamel was expertly managing a long crescendo for strings and winds, culminating in the kind of hard, brassy climax at which this orchestra excels. Balance was rarely an issue after that.

With Mahler, transparency is at least as important as balance. No matter how thickly the instrumental lines swarm, the composer wants you to hear them all in relation to each other. On Friday, it sounded as though the “new guy” had every player sitting up and minding his or her place in the overall texture.

The result was a kaleidoscopic tour of Mahler’s timbral imagination. Whether the score was piling up dissonances toward an anxious climax or dwindling to a tender duet for a flute and a horn, novel doublings and combinations constantly refreshed the ear and drew the listener into the first movement’s multifaceted meditation on life and death.

Mahler’s indication for the Ländler movement, etwas träppisch und sehr derb (somewhat clumsy and very coarse), can be a straitjacket for the interpreter of this score, unless he or she can find the nuances of character within that description. There are such things as clumsy grace and coarse wit, and one wished Dudamel had discovered more such moments along the little trill-phrase’s long journey.

The third movement, titled Rondo-Burleske, serves a function similar to that of the scherzo in Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique”: a wild outburst of vitality before the curtain of death descends. On Friday, the music scampered through all the sections of the orchestra, trombones and tuba proving as agile as the flutes and violins, and skidded around harmonic corners with abandon. After a pause for Cynthia Phelps’s viola to introduce softly a “turn” motive that will loom large later, Dudamel led a fierce but controlled accelerando to the movement’s fortissimo finish.

That motive welled up from the strings to begin the Adagio’s long goodbye, only to evaporate in a high pianissimo. Dudamel’s attention to continuity was evident as he continued indicating the beat through the music’s many silences. At last, the strings led the way again, building to one plateau after another, the conductor’s arms spread wide in encouragement, as winds and brass joined in, sometimes subtly, sometimes with bright attack.

Dudamel’s ability to sustain suspense through page after page of pianissimo was as impressive as his well-gauged crescendos. Surging strings and rich brass grasped for life, or a nostalgic horn reluctantly let it go. At the close, the conductor stood almost still, monitoring the long, long diminuendo to niente.

Conducting the complex symphony’s hour and a half from memory, Dudamel demonstrated his knowledge of the score in every detail. At a youthful 42 and full of prospects and plans, he is about the last person one expects to find peering into the abyss. But as an informed, disciplined and sensitive rendering of Mahler’s great farewell, Friday’s performance stacked up very well indeed.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. nyphil.org.

3 Responses to “Dudamel brings a disciplined Mahler Ninth to the Philharmonic”

  1. Posted May 22, 2023 at 6:16 pm by Jasper

    Off topic. To what extent has attendance in Geffen Hall rebounded after the pandemic and after the hall’s renovation?


  2. Posted May 22, 2023 at 7:31 pm by Max Williams

    Dudamel is a genious and has no ego! Brilliant A+

    Don’t carp: this is exactly where the Phil should be going
    and we won’t have to have that sour looking Jaap or whatever his name is.

  3. Posted May 26, 2023 at 6:45 pm by Ricardo Calderon

    Such a joy to watch this man conduct….his expressive nature, knowledge of the music, disarming personality and connection with musicians are all outstanding!

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