It begins innocently enough, with sleigh bells. On Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Gustavo Dudamel will conduct Mahler's most classical, least angst-ridden symphony, the Fourth, which opens with frolicsome jingling and ends in angelic folk song.
But that's just the start of a project so ambitious as to be a little crazy, to use one of Dudamel's favorite words, and the word he, himself, chose to describe the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Mahler Project during a conversation in his office at Disney Hall. Over slightly more than three weeks, Dudamel will conduct the nine symphonies Mahler completed plus the opening Adagio movement of the unfinished Tenth with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolivar Orchestra. Each symphony — the short ones can last an hour — is an emotionally charged epic, simultaneously a window onto the world at large and an aperture into a complex and often conflicted composer's soul. Each symphony is a draining physical and spiritual experience for musicians and audiences alike. Each symphony is, like life, a little (and some more than a little) crazy.
The L.A. Phil has been assigned the First, Fourth, Sixth, Ninth and the Tenth's Adagio. The Bolivars (Dudamel is their artistic director) fly in from Venezuela for the Second, Third, Fifth and Seventh. Both orchestras and 16 Southland choruses combine for the Eighth ("Symphony of a Thousand") at the Shrine Auditorium. Two days after finishing the L.A. concerts, Dudamel will repeat the whole cycle in Caracas over 12 days, again with the Bolivars and the L.A. Phil.
Mahler has become one of the most popular of all symphonists in recent years, and has been celebrated with symphony cycles in New York and Europe. Still, this much Mahler in such a concentrated time is a first for a single conductor. Dudamel may raise the stakes even higher by conducting all this Mahler from memory, likely another first. The most obvious question is: Why? Is Dudamel climbing a musical Everest because he can? Is he on a quest? Is he obsessed with Mahler? Is this a publicity stunt?
On the sunny October afternoon I met with Dudamel, Mahler was, in fact, far from his mind. Wearing a colorful T-shirt and jeans, he had just come from rehearsing Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and a difficult modern work by the late Canadian composer Claude Vivier, which he was conducting for the first time. He had, he said, been studying "like crazy" a Bartók piano concerto he was to rehearse the next morning with Yefim Bronfman (our interview was interrupted with the news that Bronfman had a broken finger, and Dudamel needed to come up with a substitute orchestral work that afternoon). Also on his plate were the world premiere of Enrico Chapela's electric cello concerto and his first time with Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" on L.A. Phil programs the following two weeks.
But he made himself an espresso and jumped into Mahler's world with good-natured enthusiasm.
Mahler has played a major role in Dudamel's career. It was with the composer's Fifth Symphony that he won the 2004 Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany, catapulting him to fame. Subsequent performances of the Fifth with the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra (now the Simón Bolivar Orchestra) on tour in Europe and the U.S., as well as on recording, helped him gain star status.
"It is funny," Dudamel recalled, "because my first encounter with Mahler was a mistake. A friend gave me a CD of the 'Pathétique' Symphony as a Christmas present. I went home, and I put on the CD expecting to listen to Tchaikovsky. But it started ta ta ta taaa" — Dudamel sings the opening trumpet fanfare of Mahler's Fifth. Someone in the record store, it seems, inadvertently switched discs.
Dudamel, 10 at the time, listened to the symphony several times, not knowing what to make of it. "It was too long for me. I didn't understand it at first, but then I fell in love, in love, in love."
Around the same time he noticed a score of the trombone part of Mahler's First laying around the house. Though a violinist, Dudamel picked up his father's trombone and began to teach himself to play the instrument by ear.
That part remains the extent of Dudamel's trombone repertory, and he dismisses it as child's play. His first serious encounter with Mahler took place six years later when his mentor — José Antonio Abreu, the founder of the famed Venezuelan music education program El Sistema — told him it was time to learn the First Symphony for real.
"I had to sing every part for him," Dudamel recalls. "Here's the English horn together with the piccolo. This was the way he taught me to memorize, because to conduct Mahler you have to know everything, and that opened the door to Mahler's world for me."