After nearly 90 minutes of transformative orchestral sounds, the Los Angeles Philharmonic wound down Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 to its whisper of a finale on Wednesday night at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center. The violins held intensely hushed notes, as if the strings were enveloped in calm during a high-wire act, and conductor Gustavo Dudamel swayed his arms as if he were rocking a newborn to sleep. The melodies faded in diminuendo, like sundown drifting into darkness, and ...
COUGH COUGH COUGH ... COUGH COUGH ... COUGH COUGH COUGH
So much for the exquisite serenity that envelops this epic work by Mahler, the final symphony the composer completed before his death in 1911. Even worse than the extensive coughing, a cellphone began to beep near Row N on the Mondavi Center floor amid the quiet fourth movement. For an appearance by a world-class symphony, it was starting to feel like amateur hour in the audience.
The extensive coughing fits around the theater meant an unfortunate, disruptive end to an otherwise stunning evening of orchestral music.
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Dudamel, 35 and a true rock star of the symphonic music world, has been music director at the Philharmonic since 2009. Earlier Wednesday, UC Davis music students sought out the Venezuelan wunderkind with the wild, curly locks and a highly emotive conducting style in hopes of getting a selfie or some other brush with greatness.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 remains closely associated with Dudamel. It’s the first work that Dudamel recorded with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the venerable Deutsche Grammophon label, and its epic scope, a kind of final life statement from Mahler, is well suited for Dudamel’s highly charged presence on the conductor’s podium.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s interpretation was like riding the tumultuous wave of life itself, with intensely sentimental melodic passages that dissolved into darker, more dissonant tones. The third movement concluded in a dizzying flurry of notes and triumphant trumpets, with so much exaltation that you could sense Wednesday’s audience trying not to erupt in cheers (classical music protocol says NO clapping between symphonic movements).
Unlike Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which concludes in its rollicking “Ode to Joy,” Mahler’s Ninth concludes with a profoundly meditative statement. It demands rapt listening and reflection from the audience as Mahler’s musical life fades into its symbolic end. While bodily responses can be unpredictable, this finale is the worst possible time for loud coughing fits. If the hacking is louder than the timpani drums at forte volume, it’s probably best to duck out while you can.
But overall, the night was tremendously rich with musicality, sonorous, sweeping string passages and a mighty brass section that traversed between bright fanfares and deep, darkened tones. The Los Angeles Philharmonic simply performed beautifully in its Mondavi Center debut. For local orchestral fans, it was a must-see, trumping Game 7 of the World Series.
And as the coughing and cellphone beeps subsided, and the final notes of the symphony faded into quietude, Dudamel soaked in the silence. He stood at the podium for over a minute, drawing in the profundity of the performance as the musicians reflected with instruments in their laps.
Then, an appropriately loud noise: a raucous cheer and ovation from the crowd.