Sunday’s Celebrity Series of Boston visit from Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic coupled the very new with the very familiar. The very new was Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz’s violin concerto Altar de cuerda (“String Altar”), an LAPO commission that Dudamel and the orchestra had premiered this past May with the dedicatee, 19-year-old Andalusian violinist María Dueñas. The very familiar was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, in the standard four-movement version. The concerto was intriguing; the symphony was all too familiar but still welcome.
Ortiz wrote Altar de cuerda for Dueñas, who took first prize at last year’s Menuhin Competition in Richmond, Virginia, and has just signed a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. This 30-minute concerto is not Ortiz’s first “altar” — she’s done seven previous such works, including an Altar de muertos for string quartet, water drums, and masks and an Altar de viento for flute and orchestra. The three movements of Altar de cuerda have their own individual titles. “Morisco chilango” references both the nickname for Mexico City natives (Ortiz describes herself as “proudly chilanga”) and the Moorish heritage of Dueñas’s native Granada. “Canto abierto” (“Open Song”) reflects on the “open chapels” of 16th-century Mexican churches that were designed to welcome native Mexicans reluctant to go inside a temple. “Maya déco” appears to be a play on “art deco.”
The piece began with a flourish from Dueñas, some thumps in the orchestra, and a whooping call from solo French horn that launched the exposition of “Morisco chilango.” There was a bustling urban energy in the orchestra’s syncopated rhythms and the hectic writing of the solo part, whose phrases searched but never seemed to find, instead triggering agitated outbursts from the orchestra. Toward the end, Dueñas issued a lyric invitation but the orchestra didn’t take it up. The structure of the movement was elusive; I couldn’t detect any trace of sonata form.
“Canto abierto” showed off the piece’s percussion array, which includes vibraphone, tambourine, tam-tam, guiro, maracas, snare drum, crotales, glockenspiel, large gong, xylophone, whip, congas, triangle, gong, bongos, cymbals, snare drum, mark tree, and temple block. What registered initially, however, was the celesta, twinkling while Dueñas soared into the stratosphere. Here the suggestion of a starry sky was in keeping with the idea of “open chapels.” Dueñas eventually came back to earth, her part still aspiring and never quite achieving, the percussion answering with a thunderstorm. There was a brass interlude, a hint of Debussy’s La mer, and a kind of chiming — church bells? — from the orchestra, as Dueñas continued her quest. The movement found peace only at the end, when the violin’s wailing ceased, leaving only the eerie sound of tuned crystal glasses played by the winds and brass.
“Maya déco” gave the signal for party time, and Dueñas impressed in her cadenza, as indeed she did throughout. The orchestra, led by insinuating rhythms in the timpani, built to a frenzy, almost drowning her out. For much of the concerto, Ortiz keeps violin and orchestra apart, much the way Tchaikovsky preferred to separate piano and orchestra in his concertos. Perhaps the composer had Dueñas’s attractively slender, focused tone in mind, but I don’t know that a fatter tone would have fared better against the masses of orchestra sound. The program note observed that “there are references to architecture” in all three movements; that puzzled me when I read it before the concert, and it still does.
The encore, Francisco Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” arranged for violin by Ruggiero Ricci, gave Dueñas a chance to show off the artistic maturity she’s already evinced in Youtube-accessible performances of the Mendelssohn and Bruch violin concertos.
In its early days as a symphonic poem, Mahler’s First Symphony bore the title Titan, referring to a novel by his favorite author, Jean Paul. Titan is a bildungsroman; the symphonic poem is an autobiographical bildungsroman in music. The hero wakes to nature, the buzz of cicadas, the chirping of birds, the fields, the flowers, the love/death call of trumpets from the nearby barracks. The sentimental second movement (called “Blumine,” another Jean Paul reference) is the hero’s serenade to his beloved. In the scherzo, the young couple stomp through a rustic ländler and swoon over a café waltz. Then, without warning, we’re pallbearers in a satiric funeral march whose melody is a minor-key version of “Frère Jacques.” The hero has suffered a fate worse than death: he’s been abandoned. In the finale, he rants, looks back wistfully at his sweetheart, rants some more and marches forward, looks back again, then tears himself away and strides forth, a champion, to meet the world.
After the work’s first three performances, Mahler removed the Titan title and deleted “Blumine,” creating a more mature work along the lines of a traditional four-movement symphony. “Blumine” was in fact lost until 1959, when it turned up at a Sotheby’s auction. Conductors have for the most part respected Mahler’s decision and chosen not to reinsert it into the symphony. This is understandable but unfortunate inasmuch as it’s the thematic material of “Blumine” that the ländler muses on and the finale looks back at.
The opening movement is marked “Wie ein Naturlaut,” and it begins with the strings playing harmonics in seven octaves of A. After two measures, the winds introduce a chain of descending perfect fourths, the motif on which the entire symphony is constructed. Even the cuckoo’s call, which in real life (and Beethoven’s Pastorale) is a descending major third, is played by the first clarinet as a descending fourth.
Dudamel’s cicadas were muted, the offstage trumpets sounded a tad too offstage, and a cheeky cuckoo notwithstanding, the forthright introduction seemed stiff. The first movement’s main theme derives from one of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, “Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld,” where on an early-morning stroll across a field the composer observes the dew on the grass and the harebells and is greeted by a merry finch. Mahler was an energetic walker and likely wanted a bracing jaunt here; Dudamel, like Andris Nelsons with the BSO last November, proceeded at more of an amble, the music tiptoeing gently into spring and then blooming as the tempo quickened. (The one minor drawback to this approach is that it loses impact when the conductor observes the exposition repeat, as nowadays all conductors do.) Dudamel in the development was almost shy, Mahler enchanted by nature’s bounty. Suspense built to an exuberant recapitulation before the coda raced home, as if the composer as a young boy had realized he was late to dinner.
Dudamel’s lilting ländler was fresh as well, and not too quick, though his idea of having the cellos and basses creak slowly to start before getting up to speed became an irritation by the third time round. The waltz trio offered quiet contrast and didn’t simper, but here Dudamel indulged in some exaggerated rubato and oversized ritards. This movement, like the first, raced to a bright, exhilarating finish.
The funeral march was inspired by Moritz von Schwind’s 1850 woodcut The Hunter’s Funeral Procession (or something very like it), in which stags, foxes, rabbits, and other game animals bear the hunter’s coffin while weeping crocodile tears. Mahler’s tempo marking, “Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen” (“Solemn and measured, without dragging”), typically asks the conductor to tightrope between too fast and too slow, and the initial pace set by timpani, bass, and bassoon was just right, setting the stage for the mocking oboe. The klezmer outfit and the oompah village band were muted, however, Dudamel underplaying Mahler’s “Mit Parodie” instruction in favor of clarifying counterpoint. The trio draws from another of Mahler’s Gesellen songs, “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz,” in which the blue eyes of the hero’s sweetheart send him away, out into the world. In other words, this is a funeral procession for the death of love. Dudamel was tender but not very flexible here; the march, when it returned, again understated the parodic element, and then Mahler’s “Plötzlich viel Schneller” erupted in a way that seemed ostentatiously faster. At least the closing ppp duet between cymbals and tam-tam, so often problematic, was clearly audible.
The finale begins with an infernal cacophony and then an angry march struggling toward Paradise. Dudamel let loose here while avoiding any congestion, and the second subject, which flashes back to “Blumine,” was wistful to start before surging at the end. A victorious rising melody follows before stalling out; in a daring move, Mahler “modulates” from C major straight to D, but then he acknowledges that D major has to be achieved the old-fashioned way. Dudamel played this for all it was worth before winding down thoughtfully and revisiting the opening movement, whose introduction frees the hero, after one last lovelorn look back, to go forward, his ticket to fame and fortune the symphony he’s just created. This last flashback felt restrained, but then the D-major climax was achieved in a succession of big ritards, here legitimate. The coda, however, was a disappointment; whereas Mahler instructs the conductor simply to press forward to the end, Dudamel sprinted to the finish line, obliterating the winsome counterpoint in the violins and violas.
Perhaps it was that sprint that brought the audience to its feet. I was surprised by the enthusiasm; this was a fine interpretation, never rote, and the orchestra was certainly outstanding, but the BSO performs at a similar level every week, and in the Mahler, at least, I didn’t hear Nelsons’s nuance of phrasing. In the event there was always going be an encore, and we got one with local flavor: Johann Strauss II’s Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka as reimagined by Caracas-born Paul Desenne, former member of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and now a Watertown resident. Triqui Traqui, as Desenne’s version is called, keeps shifting between Vienna and Venezuela, and Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic looked to be enjoying themselves immensely, equally at home in the rhythms of both.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.