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Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 3 )
El Sistema • Simón Bolívar Orchestra

El Sistema • Simón Bolívar Orchestra & Gustavo Dudamel

Glorious Venezuelan Mahler

A complete Mahler cycle is not terribly novel these days, nor particularly imaginative programming for a large festival. Then again, with the amount of great orchestras and Mahler-savvy conductors in town that the Salzburg Festival can boast, it’s a perfectly welcome opportunity to get one’s annual Mahler fix: A full, high octane dose of it, with Riccardo Chailly (No.9), Gustavo Dudamel (Nos.3, 8, 7), Michael Gielen (No.6), Mariss Jansons (No.2), Zubin Mehta (No.5), Cornelius Meister (No.4), and Simon Rattle (No.1).

The El Sistema flagship, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, takes on most of the Mahler duties at the Festival, with performances of the Third, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies. The “Symphony of a Thousand” was broadcast live on, where it can be watched for another few months. Tuesday, July 30th, the Third Symphony was on the program, also conducted by Dudamel whose career was launched with Mahler when he won the inaugural Bamberg Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition nine years ago.

Dudamel, who is routinely described as a “force of nature”, has a reputation not to come across on record as well as he does in concert. He has to be seen to be heard. That’s an assertion that’s hard to judge after a Mahler Third, which isn’t exactly the rabble-rousing fireworks kind of piece that exacerbates the difference between live and canned. The particular excellence of this performance might actually have been one that could well be caught on record.

The Third is Mahler’s boldest symphony, his clichéd best, and when the finale is brought off ‘just right’, it is the symphony with the most ecstatically moving ending: A flight of music that carries the listener through a weightless journey of the imagination. Unfortunately none of the Mahler Thirds I’ve heard live in the last few years (Mariss Jansons/RCO, Vladimir Jurowski/LPO, Jansons/BRSO, Esa-Pekka Salonen/Dresden Staatskapelle, Fischer Iván/Munich Philharmonic, and Sebastian Weigle/Frankfurt O&M Orchestra) achieved quite that sense of apotheosis I always hope for. Dudamel’s, at long last, did!

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G.Mahler, Sy. 3,
C.Abbado / BPh / Larsson

It’s safe to assume that few, if any, of the performers on stage of the Großes Festspielhaus have the kind of k.u.k. Ländler-exposure that can give an edge to Mahler interpreters over those who don’t have the ear tuned to that particular among many musico-cultural kernels that shape Mahler’s music. But what the youngish musicians of the Simón Bolívar SO do have—apart from an obvious penchant for enthusiasm and “loud”—is a willingness to throw themselves into the rhythmic and tonal shifts in Mahler. The moments when Mahler’s music tilts and changes the angle of the axis around which it flows. This—much more so than the many, often impotent climaxes in Mahler—is what makes the music and what propels it. If that’s true for Mahler in general, it’s particularly true for the Third Symphony which is not only the longest and most loosely structured among the lot, but also the one to most easily fall apart. And that’s precisely what didn’t happen.

Enthusiastic applause for the music after the rousing finale of the first movement was tut-tutted by the audience. But timid applause when Anna Larsson walked on stage seconds later was approved).

It might be churlish to pick out one instrumental group over another in such a well-performing, always coordinated, technically savvy ensemble. But apart from stunning individual performances (particularly the expressive oboe, but also the nearly flawless, behind-the-stage Posthorn), I thought the 14 (!) double basses played marvelously throughout: sensitive, incisive, with a snap and a sparkle when necessary, and delicately lush elsewhere. And so three movements went by, entertaining and well executed, and perhaps just a little short on lilt and flexibility. Then Anna Larsson opened here mouth to a dry and deeply colorful “O Mensch”, without hissing on the “sch”, wonderfully matching the depressed woodwinds and sighing trombones with which she traded calls and the performance started its slow, inexorable ascent from “very satisfactory” to “very special, indeed”. The Simón Bolivar National Youth Choir of Venezuela (and the Bimm-bamming Salzburg Festival Children’s Choir) skillfully threw themselves into the action, too.

And finally Dudamel launched the movement of movements in Mahler, the elevating, exalting finale, moving like no other Mahler-finale except that of the Ninth while being so much more typical Mahler than the latter. Avoiding all the treacherous lacunae, Dudamel perfectly pulled it from one end to the other, never slacking, never succumbing to tensionless pauses, building suspense and not releasing the reins too much, sailing along the planes irresistibly. It was, in a word, ideal… even with a minor instrumental blip or two: finally a Mahler Third finale that one could close one’s eyes to and genuinely feel the music throughout.

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