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Eschenbach Conducts Mahler 6

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
02/09/2008 -  
Mahler: Symphony No. 6

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

Christoph Eschenbach is clearly welcome in Los Angeles. Although he has had some difficulties in Philadelphia and is leaving his post at the Orchestra of Paris, he had no trouble communicating magnificently with the LA Philharmonic. His performance of Mahler 6 was strikingly beautiful.

The evening also illustrated the excellence of the orchestra; it performed at a world-class level under a baton that is very different from Esa Pekka Salonen’s. In a widely read article in the Wall Street Journal last year, a journalist suggested that the traditionally great orchestras tend to continue their greatness regardless of their relationships with conductors. Conversely, he suggested that the orchestras of the moment, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, might not continue to be so excellent once their stellar conductors have moved on. He cited the City of Birmingham Symphony and Sir Simon Rattle as an example: Rattle decamped to Berlin and the spotlight has fallen off Birmingham. In Mahler 6, the LA Philharmonic demonstrated that they play as well for Eschenbach as they do for Salonen. Next year, with the young and highly touted Gustavo Dudamel taking over, all eyes will be on Los Angeles. That will be the true test, but the orchestra is well prepared and positioned to grow even further under Dudamel.

For Eschenbach and Mahler, both the stage and the house at Disney Hall were packed. Although the 6th is not one of Mahler’s most popular symphonies, it follows a more familiar four-movement form than some of the others. The tempo markings are also more traditional, named in Italian rather than German: Allegro energico, ma non troppo; Scherzo; Andante Moderato; and Finale. The symphony is often described as “Tragic”, and was composed largely in reaction to tragedy in Mahler’s personal life. But the extreme level of energy that Eschenbach brought to the piece often felt more triumphant than tragic- it was not maudlin for even an instant. In the military precision and severe bearing of the opening movement, Eschenbach demonstrated an astounding relationship to rhythm and pulse. The rendition of the “Alma theme,” Mahler’s musical expression inspired by his extraordinary wife, was exalted. The conductor kept up that rigor throughout the performance.

Eschenbach seemed to reach directly back into the 19th century, embodying a Teutonic incisiveness and mastery. He had no need for a written score. Mahler’s symphonic architecture was as immediate to him as the billowing wood panels and stainless steel sails of Disney Hall. The orchestra responded extremely well to him, entering seamlessly into that rarified universe of sound. The rhythmic drive was intensely unified; every nuance was in unison.

The Royal Concertgebouw under Mariss Jansons had stunned the Los Angeles audience with their excellence in Disney Hall just a week earlier, in Mahler 5, among other pieces. But this rendition of Mahler 6 was equally impressive. There was almost no sadness in the massive hammer blows of tragedy in the Finale- there was simply greatness and awe. While the Sixth may not have the vast range of emotion or experience that some other Mahler symphonies express, the end of the piece left the hall in jaw-dropping silence, followed by the roar of applause.

Thomas Aujero Small



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