By Hillary Hauser
On August 11, the Big One hit the Santa Barbara Bowl - musically speaking – when Gustavo Dudamel walked on stage to lead the Music Academy of the West’s Academy Festival Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale in Mahler’s 2nd symphony, the so-called Resurrection with soloists Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano) and Susanna Phillips (soprano).
DeYoung is a Grammy Award winner with many title roles in her repertoire, Phillips is a regular at The Metropolitan Opera and both proved a good fit for this work, which was performed without intermission. The text, that contains verses by Friedrich Klopstock and from Urlicht (Primal Light), a song of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (A Boy’s Magic Horn), was displayed on a screen at the back of the stage in English, German and Spanish.
Dudamel is in his 9th season as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and also has a kindred relationship with the Simon Bolivar Symphony of Venezuela. His conducting stint on Saturday night wrapped up the Music Academy’s summer season and elicited pandemonium from an audience of 4,500, of which there was not one available seat to be had at the beautiful outdoor venue that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
This was Dudamel at his finest; he seems energized by student musicians, of which his namesake foundation supports and encourages. From his opening downbeat to the fifth and final movement of this symphony, you could have heard a pin drop from the crowd. Interestingly, the Santa Barbara Bowl is a favored West Coast venue for rock concerts where noisy, raucous fans sing and cheer with beer and brats in hand. On this night, even staff members and ushers stood in awe for the entire event.
This of course has to do with the artistry of Dudamel and how he projected Mahler’s tumultuous, majestic and tormented music. His pianissimos were a whisper, down to the last delicate notes from the harp. His sense of crescendo is not a mere act of getting louder, but instead is an inner force that builds with almost unbearable intensity. This is Dudamel; this is conducting at its finest.
Above all, Dudamel has the rare gift and ability to separate lines of melody in a most distinct way, such that in the deepest, most chaotic moments when the entire ensemble is involved, one can hear exactly what strings, horns, brass and percussion are doing. This aspect was most evident in the Andante moderato, the second movement, which contains an Austrian folk dance (a near paraphrase from this composer’s first symphony) – where violins float above a torrent of deep and agitated horns.
The real business began in Urlicht, the fourth movement, where DeYoung softly sang “Oh, red, red rose! Man lies in bitter need/Man lies in greatest pain!/Rather would I be in heaven.” The orchestra of talented Music Academy Fellows matched her subtlety and created a magical effect that seemed to vibrate from the stage to the listener’s inner soul.
With the final movement’s resounding opening clash of cymbal and brass, Phillips, chorus and orchestra began the hymn to triumph and its tumultuous ending, where Mahler’s visionary score destroys the world then consoles with inspiration and redemption. Dudamel’s leadership drew out the best from these Fellows: the orchestra’s percussion section created an enormous tremor to shake the earth, the brass (particularly trumpets) gave the last tumultuous sounds before the graves burst open, the winds (particularly flutes) effectively depicted the long note sequence of the bird of death motive and then DeYoung, Phillips and the Master Chorale rose to sing “Now cease to tremble! Prepare thyself to live!”
When everything ceased to exist and as the sweet sounding violins played in punctuated collaboration with brass, harp and solo cello, these words were again sung with great emotion; “All that has passed, must rise again!..Prepare thyself to live.”
The performance was riveting and the programming of this Mahler symphony was well timed. Scott Reed, President of the Music Academy of the West, offered pre-concert comments about how the event was dedicated to victims of January’s mudslide in Montecito and also to the late Leni Fe Bland, a longtime patron of the performing arts and philanthropic causes in Santa Barbara.
Hillary Hauser is Founder and Executive Director of Heal the Ocean in Santa Barbara. She has written numerous books and articles about underwater adventures. She served as classical music critic for the Santa Barbara News-Press and co-created the Tavros Records label.