At this point, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 performed, and I have reached the conclusion that the piece is, to put it bluntly, a hot mess. A conductor can try to play that down by applying a more mannered approach to its twists and turns, but I’ve yet to see that result in anything but a lukewarm mess. No, Mahler’s 1st is at its best when orchestra and conductor own its hot messiness and (preferably) put their own spin on it, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and music director Gustavo Dudamel kicked off their first tour since the pandemic at Symphony Hall on Sunday by doing exactly that.
Dudamel’s love for Mahler is well-documented. In 2012, during his third season as LA Phil music director, he led a complete cycle of Mahler’s symphonies at Walt Disney Concert Hall in the span of three weeks, and among those symphonies, the 1st has become a Dudamel calling card. According to the LA Phil’s website, it was the first “big piece” the conductor led at the tender age of 16, and he also chose it to introduce himself to his new hometown audience during his first concert as the LA Phil’s music director. (It’s also as portable as Mahler gets: With a runtime of just under an hour, it’s among the composer’s shorter symphonies, and it requires neither hammer box nor chorus.)
Mahler didn’t live long enough to compose for films, and knowing his somber, self-serious nature, he likely would have considered himself above such commercial pursuits. But Dudamel’s swashbuckling read of the epic symphony applied an Old Hollywood filter to Mahler’s Teutonic angst. In that light, everything from the sardonic funeral march (a minor-key “Frere Jacques”) to the finale’s fake-out ending felt modern and theatrical.
The orchestra’s sound was silky and warm but buoyant — unless Dudamel dictated otherwise for dramatic effect, such as in the second movement’s lurching peasant dance when the low strings dug their bows in with such force I was almost afraid one might snap. As the horns unleashed a series of brash fanfares, I felt like if I turned around I might see Errol Flynn or some other dashing Golden Age hero swinging from the balconies. The standing ovation was instant and deafening, from a Symphony Hall packed to the rafters. The hall has hosted several Mahler 1sts in the last several years; it’s probably fair to say it hasn’t hosted one like that.
Many had undoubtedly come for Dudamel, or Mahler by Dudamel. Probably fewer had come for the 19-year-old Spanish violinist María Dueñas, dedicatee of Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz’s new LA Phil-commissioned concerto “Altar de cuerda” (String Altar).
Dueñas has racked up the string of awards that one could expect from anyone performing with a top-tier orchestra while not yet old enough to drink in this country, and she deftly proved herself to be no run-of-the-mill wunderkind with her riveting performance. Ortiz, a longtime LA Phil collaborator, composed “Altar de cuerda” in late 2021: Dueñas delivered its world premiere a handful of months ago, and her performance on Sunday was without any of the stiffness or uncertainty that sometimes haunts new music. It seemed she’d had it in her fingers forever. Poised as such, Dueñas’s solo violin served as the audience’s guide through the piece, and the thrill of discovery illuminated every measure.
The chunky Andalusian groove of the first movement gave way to a meditative central sequence, and Dueñas’s violin soared through the stratosphere as chimes and tuned crystal glasses added an eerie halo of sound. Her tone was crisp but not brittle: It sounded with a lush snap, like the sensation of biting into a freshly picked vegetable. As an encore, she paid homage to her hometown of Granada with Ruggiero Ricci’s solo violin arrangement of classical guitar great Francisco Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” playing it with robust grace that was entirely absent from Leonidas Kavakos’s rendition of the same at Tanglewood this summer.
And because the soloist shouldn’t get to have all the fun in the encore department, Dudamel leaped back on the podium after the Mahler symphony and unleashed a delightful surprise in the form of “Triqui-Traqui,” Venezuelan cellist (and Watertown resident) Paul Desenne’s Latin American twist on Johann Strauss Jr.’s kitschy “Tritsch-Tratsch Polka.”
“You won’t hear the Berlin Philharmonic do that,” someone murmured as the visiting team collected their third standing ovation of the night.
No, you probably won’t.
LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC
At Symphony Hall. Oct. 23. Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. www.celebrityseries.org