United States Mahler and Berlioz: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Carnegie Hall, 24.2.2018. (RP)
Mahler – ‘Adagio’ from Symphony No.10 in F-sharp minor
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique Op.14
‘Sold out’ was pasted across the signs announcing the three back-to-back concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall with Gustavo Dudamel conducting. The first was all Brahms, and the final one was a pairing of Ives and Tchaikovsky. In between, Dudamel and the orchestra performed Mahler’s ‘Adagio’ from his Symphony No.10 and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, which I had the privilege to attend.
It has been a few years since I last saw Dudamel conduct, but along the way he cut his hair. Once a wunderkind, at 37 he has attained an impish gravity, to say nothing of fame. A full-page advertisement in the program booklet for his upcoming concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in NYC has ‘The best-known conductor in the world’ emblazoned across the page. (The quote is attributed to The Guardian.) In 2007 he was named music director of the LA Phil, the same year that he first conducted the Vienna Philharmonic at the Lucerne Festival. Ten years on, they still make terrific music together.
In an orchestra of unparalleled depth across all sections, the violins of the Vienna Philharmonic are first among equals. Leaving the hall, my companion said that the concertmaster, Rainer Honeck, reminded him of Norman Carol, who held the position with the Philadelphia Orchestra for many years under Eugene Ormandy and later Riccardo Muti. The same thought had been running through my mind. Honeck is a man with a purpose, and his energy and incisive playing are the backbone of the orchestra. There are fine concertmasters to be found the world over, but Honeck, like Carol before him, is a rare specimen of that select breed.
The orchestra could run on autopilot, which indeed it did the first time that I heard it, performing a Haydn symphony sans conductor. Dudamel nevertheless put his stamp on the performance. His podium style was restrained, with surprisingly few grand gestures in music that screams drama. There was a verticality to his approach, which translated to structural clarity and textural transparency. A slight bounce in the second movement of the Berlioz was all that was needed to give it buoyancy. A bit of swaying had the same effect in the encore, Josef Strauss’ Delirien Waltz.
The other star of the evening was Carnegie Hall itself, as is often the case. Mahler’s ‘Adagio’ opens with a solo passage for the violas, whose sound as it floated through the hall was mesmerizing. It was the same in the third movement of the Berlioz when Daniel Ottensamer played the clarinet more sweetly than I could have ever imagined, his sound caressed by the hall’s fabled acoustics. The Vienna Philharmonic appears to love Carnegie Hall, and the feeling is reciprocated. It is a safe bet, however, that the audience expected to be lifted out of their seats, and not only by pretty sounds. They weren’t disappointed.
After the sweeping melodies and rich horn sonorities, the Mahler came to its terrifying climax. The opening movements of the Symphonie fantastique brought still more splendid horn playing, swirls of harp arpeggios, the duet of English horn and offstage oboe and four perfectly synchronized tympanists. The ‘March to the Scaffold’ unfolded in hypnotic, grandiose swirls of sound culminating with the stroke of death. Demons and sorcerers cavorted in the ‘Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath’, ending in a violent climax. It was a controlled explosion, as even at the height of frenzy the music never disintegrated into raucous debauchery.
Opening with a tremolo in the woodwinds, the encore was ten minutes of lilting Strauss waltzes interspersed with single strokes of the tympani. It was a holiday for strings, as their sound swirled in Strauss’ sweeping melodies. At times Dudamel stood almost stock still, but that little sway revealed just how effectively he communicates with this orchestra.