There is a persistent notion that only those well into middle-age, if not the outright elderly, are qualified to conduct Mahler, especially his late works. Those who espouse this belief forget that Bruno Walter, after all, was only 36 when he was entrusted with the Ninth Symphony’s posthumous premiere (and its recently deceased composer only a little over a decade older than him).

Gustavo Dudamel © Gerardo Gomez | Fundamusical
Gustavo Dudamel
© Gerardo Gomez | Fundamusical

Today, Gustavo Dudamel is only a couple years older than Walter was when he conducted that Ninth. Yet, as with his storied precursor, his relative youth proved no hindrance to delving into this symphony's emotional profundities, as the Disney Hall audience soon discovered. More importantly he had at his fingertips the Los Angeles Philharmonic, an orchestra of virtuosi which played this score with a precision and clarity likely beyond its composer’s wildest imagining.

The real Mahler has become an elusive figure amidst the fog of rumor which has posthumously enveloped him. Dudamel’s performance, bracing and straightforward, seared off that haze of sentimentality and post-mortem psychologizing which for too long have been inflicted upon composer and his music.

Alfred Roller, set designer for the Vienna Court Opera and friend of Mahler’s, once described his surprise at discovering his colleague’s “fine display of muscle”, later recalling, “Contrary to general opinion, Mahler was muscularly powerful.”

Something of that Mahler – the indefatigable mountaineer, cyclist, swimmer, and oarsman – could be heard in Dudamel’s vision of the Ninth, which surged forward, headlong into adventure. He achieved this not through harried tempi (Dudamel’s pacing was generally mainstream), but in the remarkable clarity of the symphony’s inner voices; that contrapuntal sinew, so crucial in Mahler’s late music, which fuses the flesh of melody to the bone of symphonic form. Even during the manic closing stretto of the Rondo-Burleske (where Dudamel, indeed, set a breakneck tempo), the LA Phil articulated its dizzying polyphony with an equally dizzying exactitude that further stoked the flames of this music’s sardonic terror.

But it was the finale which proved the greatest revelation of all. Dudamel posed a strikingly different perspective of this music to his audience. One heard not the prognostication of doom from a death-obsessed neurasthenic, but rather the awareness of a rational man in the late summer of his life who glimpsed the horizon lines of his existence, and understood in his marrow what they portended. Yet instead of falling into self pity, this recognition of life’s transience served only to heighten its loveliness, to strengthen his resolve to live. In the otherworldly final bars of this work (with principal violist Teng Li and cellist Robert deMaine each playing solos of matchless poignancy) which floated into celestial nothingness, beauty triumphed over the awful, hope vanquished despair.

Moments before the performance, Dudamel announced to the audience that the program was being dedicated to the late André Previn, who had died earlier that morning. His life-affirming Mahler Ninth was a fitting gesture to a musician who himself had carefully cultivated joy and beauty in his own time.