The pairing of Mahler and Ives might sound like a law partnership, but in fact they were composers who happened to work in New York City around the same time (1907-11).
Were they aware of each other? Apparently so, for Mahler was intrigued by the score of Ives' then-unplayed Symphony No. 3 and conceivably could have introduced it with his New York Philharmonic had he not passed away in 1911. That would have set the musical trajectory of the 20th century on its ear -- or more likely, touched off some legendary critical invective.
There are posthumous connections too, for both Mahler and Ives did not receive their due as major, innovative composers until the free-thinking 1960s -- and the main catalyst for both was one of Mahler's successors at the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein.
No doubt Mahler and Ives have shared programs somewhere in this land since. But in the hands of conductor Ingo Metzmacher at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night, it looked like a fresh, even startling concept. Here we heard one of Mahler's most often played scores, Symphony No. 5, juxtaposed with one of Ives' least-known major scores, the Robert Browning Overture (indeed, the Los Angeles Philharmonic had never played it before).
Even though both pieces were completed in the same era (Mahler's in 1902, Ives' in 1912), the Mahler Fifth rests easily upon our ears these days while the Ives overture still challenges and hectors 21st century audiences. This time, Ives didn't fall back upon endearingly quaint hymns and patriotic tunes as comfortable reference points; he served up his deliciously mad polyphonic crosscurrents and hushed ethereal vistas straight, severe and unfiltered.
Yet underneath the turbulent Ives surface, you could sense the same conflicting vision that troubled Mahler -- looking back into the nostalgic past while plunging exuberantly ahead into the uncharted 20th century.
Metzmacher, who succeeds Kent Nagano at the head of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in 2007, certainly knows his Ives, having attracted early attention with a superb disc of quirky Ives odds and ends for EMI in 1992. He could conjure urbane expressiveness and richness in the still passages, bringing the massive fugal coda to a mighty head without a sense of anticlimax.
Metzmacher's Mahler was spottier, with mostly relaxed tempos in the first three movements, lacking in explosive neurotic energy in critical passages. But then there was that heavenly Adagietto. Launched at the moderate tempo that early Mahler pioneers like Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter advocated, the mood really took hold when Metzmacher turned some heart-melting rubatos, gorgeously executed by the Philharmonic strings.