Hong Kong Arts Festival 2015

Dudamel's Mahler 6 like seeing the world with a new pair of glasses

Convincing pacing, expressive details and clarity of structure defined young maestro's conducting, and Los Angeles Philharmonic were magnificent

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 March, 2015, 10:44am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 10:30am

Hong Kong Arts Festival

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

Reviewed: 19 March

Playing Mahler’s Symphony No 6 is like riding a shaggy monster, but conductor Gustavo Dudamel guided the magnificent Los Angeles Philharmonic through the lurching ups and downs with passion and precision.

This symphony in four movements, a full hour and twenty minutes long, is a conductor’s paradise, featuring big woodwind and brass sections and colourful percussion including cowbells, a whip and a hammer. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has fervent, rich strings, a gorgeous wall of brass, evocative woodwind soloists, particularly oboe and English horn, and a first horn player who is a marvel. The percussionists, besides being always precise and gloriously loud when needed, had a beautifully subtle balance with the other instruments – the frisson of a triangle blended with harp and tremolo strings made a whole new substance, like whipping eggs into meringue.

The modest young maestro gave no hint of showing off, but revealed his mastery of the music by his convincing pacing, expressive details and clarity of structure. Changing tempos, multiple layers, abrupt dynamic shifts, all seemingly flowed effortlessly from the imagination. The first sounds made me catch my breath -- slashing notes on the low strings, the bowing savage but solidly unified. It was like seeing the world with a sharp new pair of glasses. This clarity continued throughout the concert, part of this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival.

In this piece, which seemed to foreshadow the turbulent 20th century, Mahler’s marches, songs and dances have a flavour of Viennese gentility with an edge of sarcasm heard in the clatter of the xylophone, twisted harmonies and mocking clarinets. The tensions were not resolved but were left hanging, and the beautiful pastoral visions with celeste, harp and woodwinds just made the marches all the more bitter.

This style of fevered romanticism continually wants to top itself. Dudamel didn’t hold back in any of the high spots but still saved something for the dramatic ending. This consisted of two blows of a massive hammer on a huge wooden box, a crash of four pairs of cymbals together, and then backed away to a low brass chorale, dying to silence. After this pregnant pause the fff full orchestra hit was shocking indeed. But the very last sound was a mysterious low pizzicato, like a desperate gasp.

The buzz in the audience was intense and the many curtain calls and bows for the soloists were greeted with loud cheers. People around me could be heard planning to come to Friday’s concert, looking forward to hearing Dvorak and John Adams played with this level of excitement and artistry.