Less than an hour long, Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major is too short to fill an evening programme, but too long to easily fit a standard overture–concerto–symphony model. In the past two decades at Carnegie Hall, conductors have coupled it with shorter works by Mahler himself, but also violin concertos by Bartók or Bruch. Gustavo Dudamel, an enthusiastic champion of new music, used the occasion to promote the work of Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz

María Dueñas
© Chris Lee

Altar de cuerda (Altar of strings), a violin concerto with a typical fast–slow–fast structure, is her sixth commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Ortiz employs architectural metaphors here linked to her hometown, Mexico City, to pay homage to the innovative power of syncretism, an important characteristic of her compositional style. With an overall Romantic atmosphere, but also persistent whiffs of flamenco, Morisco chilango, the first movement, refers to those city neighbourhoods redolent of the Arab-influenced architecture of Andalusia. Marked by huge harmonic chords that grow and contract, on which the violinist embroiders expressive lines, Canto abierto (Open song) evokes the huge roofless chapels where the Spanish conquistadors evangelised the indigenous people. Finally, the energetic, rhythmic Maya déco recalls Maya motifs appearing in the design patterns of Art Deco buildings such as the Palacio de Bellas Artes. 

María Dueñas and Gustavo Dudamel
© Chris Lee

At no point is the complex score easy to label as “Latin American” music; no extra emphasis is placed on rhythmic patterns. The slightly integrated dialogues between solo violin and ensemble are very much in the tradition of 19th-century European virtuosic concertos, even if the soundscape is different, employing an array of percussion including Tibetan singing bowls. Listeners were fully charmed by the work’s dedicatee, teenage Spanish prodigy María Dueñas. Valiant and assured, with an alternatively steely and velvety sound, she seemed to be the one guiding the orchestra towards the final cadenza, which she dispatched with great poise. In another evocation of her native Andalusia, Dueñas offered an exquisite rendition of Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, the classical guitar piece arranged for violin by Ruggiero Ricci. As in Ortiz’ concerto, Deuñas made the encore’s difficulties seem much easier than they really were.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil in Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee

In a way, Mahler’s First Symphony shares with Ortiz’ score the desire to combine disparate sources and the idea of searching for, without necessarily finding, an equilibrium between opposite pulls. Dudamel imposed this view in Mahler's score, driving the excellent players of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with an iron fist. Not all his choices felt fully justified. The Ländler at the beginning of the Scherzo sounded too ponderous, while the rendition of the klezmer music didn’t exactly follow the “Mit Parodie” marking. Irrespective of the woodwinds attacks being a bit off the mark a few times, the mood switches in the first movement could have been more flexible. At the same time, there were remarkable individual moments: the bass rendition of the Bruder Martin melody, the quote from Mahler's song Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz, the frenetic beginning of the Finale or the reappearance of the horn's declaration of the descending fourth sequence first heard at the beginning of the symphony. Wonderfully calibrated, the culminating crescendos in both the first and last movement were splendid.