Gustavo Dudamel's reign as New York Philharmonic conductor began on Friday, with an end.
This superstar conductor was greeted with a roar by the audience when he performed with the orchestra in David Geffen Hall, for the first time after being appointed its new music director. Mahler's final and ninth symphony is one of the great farewells of the repertory. Few works capture the highs and the lows of life more accurately and without compromise, from the pastoral and hysterical to the raucous existence and pianississimo dying.
The program had been planned well before Dudamel was appointed, but it proved to be perfect for the moment. Mahler's Ninth is nearly an hour and half long. It can fill a concert by itself. No overture; no soloist; no intermission.
It was a very long and focused conversation between the conductor, Jaap van Zweden, and the musicians he will be leading for the next few years. Dudamel will not officially begin his five-year deal until 2026, as Jaap vanZweden's successor finishes the season next year.
It was also the perfect piece for this moment because the orchestra had a special claim on Mahler. He was its chief conductor just as he finished the symphony in 1911, and he served briefly, but forever. The Ninth Symphony is not a rare piece, but the Philharmonic has entrusted it to many of its music directors, including Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein - two of the most influential Mahlerians in the 20th century.
Dudamel, with the weight of history tangible, achieved a casualness in this expansive, complex, and bracing piece. He made it seem like this was just another piece.
This Ninth was not a hothouse or religious rite. Dudamel led with ease and, in particular, in the great Adagio Fourth Movement, a tendency towards briskness. He was not interested in the self-seriousness which can easily bend this Symphony into exaggerated solemnity. The goal was bright freshness, not autumnal glow.
Dudamel, conducting without a score or podium behind him -- he seemed saying that there were no barriers between myself, the players, and the audience -- convincingly and naturally guided many of the score's small, but important, shifts in pace. Artful deceleration at the end of the 1st movement and lucid transitions near the 3rd were evident. The music was never manipulated, bullied or artificially inflate.
The strings that interrupted a funeral dirge played by the bassoon at the beginning of the finale were not a slap on the face but a rapid tidal flood. These strings played earlier with mossy dark in the passionately strange "Leidenschaftlich" passage of the first movement.
The trumpets were the perfect coppery bite throughout the entire symphony. Nancy Allen's principal harp brought to her music the smooth, but slightly unnatural, resonance of temple bells. Ryan Roberts on English horn played small but meaningful solos with his flawless poetry, especially towards the end. Cynthia Phelps' principal viola played with both tenderness, and tanginess.
Yet, there was something missing in the evening: a certain level of depth and personality.
The first movement, while clear and direct, lacked mystery and emotion -- a mood that went beyond accuracy. The murky and brooding music that followed, which was a nod towards Wagner's portrayal of the magical Tarnhelm from his Ring, passed without any phosphorescent eeriness.
Mahler's Ninth is not a love fest. Dudamel, in the second movement, led a landler that was sweetly rustic rather than ominously harsh. He bounced up and down on his knees while making smiling cues using a flared-out left hand. The waltz that it becomes has a more circus-like, breezy feel than anything sinister. This was not the Mahler that prefigured Shostakovich.
It might be a good idea to show some restraint, even if it's just a little sunniness in the second movement to give you more room in the third, which is unquestionably explosive. On Friday, the Rondo-Burleske's third movement was not really intense either.
The first measures, while grand and sumptuous, were not accompanied by grotesquery, self-mockery, or anything more than a slight pepperiness. So the sudden change to a consoling theme, like the roof opening up to reveal the vastness of the starry sky, didn't make the required impact. Dudamel had not brought us to the point where we needed to be comforted.
The playing wasn't light, but it was airy and receptive in the lower strings. The eighty minutes passed by too quickly.
Stefan Dohr was invited to fill the vacant principal horn role in the orchestra. The result was uneven. Dohr's performance in this crucial role was solid, but his mellow, solid tone that veered into leadenness didn't sound like his colleagues. The passage of solos between the winds during the fourth movement gave a sense of humanity, but like the performance in general, it felt a little stranded.
The Philharmonic tends to imply super-soft playing, rather than achieving or even enjoying it. The orchestra's full-cry sound was edgier than I expected, with a more rounded and blended warmth. This reminded me of my initial concerns about the Geffen Hall's stark but clear acoustics, which were expressed at the opening of the renovated space in the fall.
The symphony’s final minutes were the most sensible I’ve ever heard. This was more of a soothing lullaby than an emotional or radical depiction. The play was well-paced, but there is still a lot to be done in terms of depth.
It was an end. It was an ending.