When the New York Philharmonic performs a Mahler symphony, it's difficult if not impossible to keep me away. I had noticed last year that Gustavo Dudamel was scheduled to conduct Mahler's Symphony No. 5 this month, but I waited until almost the last minute to get tickets. Maybe it was the thought that I had already spent a great deal of money on the Philharmonic, or maybe it was that I've already heard them play two other Mahler symphonies in the past seven months. But when I looked in my heart, I knew I'd regret passing up the chance to hear Mahler's Fifth, especially with Dudamel at the podium. Dudamel is one of the new "rock stars" of the conducting world. He's the 28-year-old director of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and the newly appointed music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic starting next season. He's about five feet tall, and most of that is his Sideshow Bob-like head of curls. I've seen a Youtube clip of him conducting the end of Mahler's Third Symphony, and I couldn't believe a man so young would have such a commanding presence, not to mention his enthusiasm.
So after much consideration and schedule-consulting, I exchanged some tickets for a May concert for last night's performance of Mahler's Fifth. It was a "Rush Hour" concert at 6:45, and the hall was packed, which I suspect was the doubled effect of Mahler (always popular with audiences) and Dudamel. The stage was as crammed with strings and winds as I've ever seen it; I think they had more instrumental musicians on stage for this concert than they did for Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony last month. Dudamel conducted with an energy I seldom see from conductors. I had read reviews of his style which described it as an "interpretive dance," and at times he was almost dancing. He leaped, waved, snapped cues with a flick of his wrist, and once indicated a big crash by starting with his hands behind his head. His aforementioned enthusiasm was clear even where we were sitting at the back of the hall. I could only imagine that his face was conveying the emotion he must have felt while leading the orchestra through some of Mahler's most tortured music in the first half of the work and his most glorious in the end. I'm not sure I could have followed his every gesture were I in the orchestra, but I have no doubt I would have enjoyed every moment of his direction. He reminded me of Leopold Stokowski in "Fantasia," because it seemed as if Mahler's music didn't exist until Dudamel (who conducted without a score) gave each cue to the orchestra. And the musicians responded to Dudamel's enthusiasm with their own. The solo trumpet in the first movement and the solo horn in the Scherzo were particularly notable. And the strings and harp in the fourth movement, Mahler's love letter to his wife Alma, were just sublime. I was moved almost to tears. And I had a goofy grin on my face for the entire finale, as I couldn't wait to hear the heroic chorale from the second movement that reappears near the end of the last. The audience applause at the end rivaled the response to Kurt Masur last March when he conducted Bach's St. Matthew Passion. I got the feeling that New York really likes Dudamel. I'm jealous of the audiences in LA that will get to enjoy Dudamel's work for the next few years. But I will definitely get tickets to his next concert with the Philharmonic, regardless of the program.