For over a decade, Gustavo Dudamel has been the face of classical music's new generation; figurehead for Venezuela's Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, poster boy for California. Long, black tight curls, beaming smile, twinkling eyes, energetic podium style. He even has a cool nickname: The Dude. The flyaway curls are shorter now and his conducting less frenetic. His Mahler – once impetuous and occasionally scrambled, has also calmed down, judging by this performance of the Third Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, concluding their Barbican residency. It's more considered, more sober. Like The Dude himself, his Mahler has matured.

Gustavo Dudamel © Keith Sheriff | Barbican
Gustavo Dudamel
© Keith Sheriff | Barbican

The performance was a long, slow burn. It helped that Dudamel, conducting without a score, had the LA Phil at his fingertips, a powerhouse American orchestra with a turbo-charged sound. The tiniest of gestures released brass playing as bright and sassy as the sails of their Walt Disney Concert Hall home. The horns carolled their opening alarm call “Pan awakes” with massive authority, trumpets ripped apart their reveilles with lacerating ferocity. The playing was bold, occasionally too much for the congested Barbican acoustics, despite there being no risers for the brass, woodwinds and percussion sections, presumably to help tame the balance.

For all the brilliance of the orchestral sound, their performance didn't really scratch far beneath the surface for the first two movements. Plush strings serenaded with saccharine tone, summer marched in with a swagger and the trombone solo was meticulously delivered. Mahler's folksy minuet was precise rather than earthy. Where was the emotional depth? Instead, it seemed an orchestra on demonstration mode, displaying its impressive wares, but all a bit 'cruise control'.

All that changed from the third movement. Woodwinds squealed, chuckled and chirruped as we embarked upon “What the animals in the forest tell me”. Suddenly, a deeper sense of character bristled in their playing. Dudamel succumbed to a few knee bounces and left hand sweeps, but by and large his gestures were small, sometimes barely conducting at all. Amid the forest murmurs came Thomas Hooten's distant posthorn solo, cushioned by ghostly muted strings. The hall held its breath. We had reached a magical place.

Tamara Mumford © Dario Acosta
Tamara Mumford
© Dario Acosta

“O Mensch! Gib acht!” was sensitively sung. Tamara Mumford's lean mezzo doesn't quite envelop the listener, but her singing had a pleasing simplicity and warmth. The oboe playing was as clean, without the glissandos in the upwards curls that Dudamel's mentor Claudio Abbado encouraged. The “Morning Bells” of the fifth movement chimed lustily thanks to the Tiffin Boys' Choir, turned out in their striped blazers, the Ladies of the LSO Chorus also in fine fettle. That angelic “Wunderhorn” moment when the mezzo sings the heavenly refrain that would reappear in Mahler's next symphony (originally planned for the Third) was deliciously sung by Mumford.

And then the long finale, which reached transcendental heights. Dudamel again paced it slowly, deliberately, but now drew an emotional, rapt response from his orchestra. Tamara Mumford, sitting next to the conductor, had a look of beatific rapture across her face. I suspect she saw the same look reflected many times in the audience. Here was Mahler playing of real distinction and real depth.

****1