Mahler's celebrants raise high the roof beam

Who can retrieve their senses -- in these days of our numbingly nasty national melodrama? Those lucky Angelenos who flowed into downtown's Disney Hall, that's who.

michael_tilson_thomas.jpgThere they found humanity. Profound humanity. Because the music's composers -- Mahler, Beethoven and Bernstein -- arguably could not countenance life without it. And their proponents, Gustavo Dudamel and Michael Tilson Thomas (pictured) leading respective bands, the LA Phil and the San Francisco Symphony, simply reveled in their scores.

Even the Colburn Orchestra's conservatory musicians got into the act -- a case I cannot overstate. Match them with many professional boldface bands and they'd win.

Besides hearing their sheer technical mastery, all you had to do was watch. Sitting on the edge of their chairs (not leaning into the back rests as long-time practitioners do), bobbing like Berliners and unafraid to move physically into the music, they swept up every corner of Mahler's First Symphony -- at the notable behest of MTT.

How he tapped such expressive sophistication from these musicians had to be a matter of equals responding to each other at a terrifically high level. There was a delirium of joy, a gem├╝tlichkeit born of old Vienna, a galvanizing, robust energy that took my breath away.

So do we look forward to MTT returning for more of the same here? Without question.

The native Angeleno stands atop the major American maestros now among us. He always counted, along with the late Bernstein, Maazel and (retired) Levine. From that early time -- when he sat at the feet of Pierre Boulez and Igor Stravinsky here and conducted LACMA's Monday Evening Concerts, and performed at USC as pianist for Heifetz and Piatigorsky, collaborated with Bernstein, led the LA Phil as principal guest conductor -- to now, as he retires from his 25-year tenure in San Francisco.

And what an event his recent tour with the SFO also was at Disney Hall -- one reason being their account of Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

Prior to that I remembered one night hearing a drive-time radio-play of its famous Adagietto (as recorded by MTT and his San Franciscans). Especially this movement, which came across then and again in Disney as a myriad of nuances, of dynamic levels, all in feeling states of longing and separation that were continuously elastic, continuously plumbed, not the smoothly streaming surfaces so many others deliver.

Virtually everyone has picked up the excerpted Adagietto. Visconti in his film "Death in Venice," (based on Thomas Mann's novella) with Dirk Bogarde[fixed - .ed.], dying from cholera while looking wistfully from afar at the young blond Adonis Tadzio. And even Gerald Arpino whose ballet was set on it, with a pas de deux reminding me -- ridiculously -- of how a trained seal could learn to balance a ball on the tip of its nose. That dance together with that music. An almost illicit coupling.

But when it came to Dudamel's single performance of Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" (The Song of the Earth), the one (among four) that was unfettered by an ad hoc fanciful frame, the one that was left to stand on its miraculous own, I felt blessed.

Yes, it gave us only what we needed -- not blasphemy -- just direct access to the LA Phil, its astute podium meister and the two prescribed, stellar singers. After all, Mahler told his life story here -- about a daughter's death plus his own impending end. Perhaps no one has ever translated so deeply into words or music the ecstasy of life and the exquisite pain of losing it as this composer in this work.

And here the musicians brought us the Mahler who converted old Chinese poems into music. Dudamel led them into the score's refined sensuality, its sheer orchestration revealing the most gorgeous solo and chamber playing in memory; into the delicate "mourning for forgotten joy" the composer spoke of, and of being "thirstier than ever for life... where "the habit of living is sweeter than ever." (quotes from Herb Glass's superb notes).

Tenor Russell Thomas, whose exuberant top voice burst like fireworks in a sparkling spray, sounded its apt drunken heroism and mezzo soprano Tamara Mumford evoked the farewell's softly burnished sorrow.

All of it was immensely moving, even while we cannot forget the revered Carlo Maria Giulini's 1984 performance here, along with Jon Vickers -- its infinite closing of the work, to the whisper, to the gauged last dying breath.

But with this big perspective Dudamel did not pass over Beethoven or Bernstein in his centennial year. And although we hardly go for long without the great 9th Symphony raising the roof beams our resident maestro brought it out again in a pairing with Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms."

Only a third as long as the 9th, this boisterously gleeful work is pure Americana -- its open-hearted lyrical theme, its great lush string outpourings, its dancey cross-rhythms and its tender innocence all conspire to make it a Dudamel &Co. specialty. Add to that the splendid, full-throated LA Master Chorale. There you have it: a double bill that all orchestras should consider.

Program planners, in fact, are crucial for all of the performing arts. And that's just what the enterprising Benjamin Millepied is so good at doing for his L.A. Dance Project.

Call him the curator par excellence. Because, as in his other ever-questing events, he rounded up a program of wide interest. This time, as resident company at the Wallis, he chose a gamut from Martha Graham duets to Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin's period prior to his current body-analytics craze, called Gaga. And can you imagine how fascinating it is to glimpse that span of decades-ago creativity in an artist's life?

Well, what "Yag," showed us is that Naharin always was a master of the stage, of how to keep an audience engaged moment to moment, of how to use themes and language snippets, and scenic settings that prompt intrigue, and all the things that make up a theatrical whole. And we now know that his current Gaga shenanigans, which shunt aside those qualities, are devoid of such sensibility.

LADP_Yag_3_Erin-Baiano.jpg"Yag" photo by Erin Baiano.


But take it when you get it and here it was: "Yag" (1996), a superbly designed piece that has digested what Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch both put out there and Naharin apparently saw. An aesthetic that includes life in its ordinariness, its journalism, its psycho-conscious narrative -- all of it constructed from lines spoken, confessions made, interactive movements and mysteries unveiled. In this case, the metaphoric workings of a family. Mesmerizing.

And the talent of former prima ballerina Virginia Johnson is no longer in the shadows now that her company, Dance Theatre of Harlem (founded by Arthur Mitchell) has resurfaced after a hiatus of several years. Nothing is lost, judging from how it looked at the Broad Stage. And I'm talking about the small, subtle ways in which all dance must find the heart of its music. "See the music and hear the dance," as Balanchine so brilliantly put it.

So there was the piece set to Brahms' "Variations on a Theme of Haydn," with Robert Garland's choreography capturing the score's internal phrases and how it flows, while the dancers, in sync with its spirit, caught those choice moments of piquancy.

Then there's also music that invites a pianist to fill in the blanks. And Jeremy Denk went all the way down that page. In his Wallis recital he seemed to be painting pictures, writing novels with Schubert's B-flat major Sonata.

He found a haunted quality to the composer's searching key modulations -- ghost-like, reverberating. His voicings were dramatic, his songfulness took flight. In fact all that he played on the program found some distinctive affect, especially, Mozart's Rondo, K. 511 which was melancholy and introspection personified.

Wallis-JeremyDenk-4-25-18-KevinParry.jpgJeremy Denk at the Wallis by Kevin Parry.


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