Super Bowl Sunday with Dudamel’s Mahler Ninth

United StatesUnited States Mahler: Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 5.2.2012 (LV)

Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D Major

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic wound up their mammoth Mahler Project with an affable, untroubled Ninth on Super Bowl Sunday afternoon at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Mahler is right up the orchestra’s Technicolor alley: punch and glory from the brass, unfailingly exquisite sounds from the woodwinds, and some good work as well from the double basses – aside, however, from Carrie Dennis’s passionate leadership from the first viola chair, the strings sounded tired and occasionally imprecise. It could easily have been the ensemble’s grueling pace: performing all the symphonies in three-and-a-half weeks, and finally combining with Dudamel’s Simon Bolívar Orchestra to play the gigantic Eighth Symphony at the white-elephantine Shrine Auditorium.

But even at Disney Hall, it was a scene. There were groupies who attended every concert, haunting dark corners for spare tickets, like loose change. Lots of young demographic types – and even the seniors with walkers, canes and wheel chairs – were ready to run over anyone who stood in their way.

There was the hall’s usual army of ushers: impossibly youthful, unfailingly helpful and courteous, and vigilant against straggling critics trying to lounge on the stairs. What I don’t understand is why they are so totally uninterested in the music being played. If the Philharmonic is really about community, and wants to bolster the case for their 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, offering the ushers on-the-job training in the fast-growing classical music sector of the entertainment industry would be a win-win proposition for everyone.

Musically speaking, except for one Grinch of a critic, it was clear that the virtually standing-room-only turnout (pretty good since it was competing against the Super Bowl, after all) enjoyed the performance tremendously. Even the presence of an errant cell phone in the first movement – shades of Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic! – didn’t cause Dudamel or the ensemble to lose focus. Through sheer, boyish innocence, the 32-year-old conductor detoxed the bitter, grim forebodings of death in whose clutches the composer lay as mortality placed its hand over his fragile heart. Dudamel’s naive Ninth even had a certain redeeming quality about it, as if the composer had been able, perhaps even intended, to distill from the music’s bitter landscape innocent scenes from childhood. And Dudamel made sure that applause would not interrupt the idyllic ending by conducting the silence after the last notes for a full 60 seconds.

To its immense pride and credit, Los Angeles is the only one of the country’s major metropolises which said no to the National Football League (in 1995), but would never let its Philharmonic go. Just in case, however, the relative brevity (80 minutes) of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – the composer’s enduring testament to a life of exaltation, love and loss – gave the audience plenty of time to get home for most of the football game.

Laurence Vittes