The charismatic conductor makes his first-ever Seattle stop with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Nov. 4 for a performance of Mahler’s profoundly moving Ninth Symphony.
What is it about the number nine when it comes to symphonies?
“Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the beyond,” Arnold Schoenberg ominously remarked. Gustav Mahler had seemingly proved that a composer tempts fate by writing a ninth symphony.
The superstitious notion of a Ninth as a “limit” can be traced back to Beethoven’s example. Not only was the Ninth his last symphony: It was the great game-changer that pointed the way toward Mahler’s concept that the genre should be “like the world,” embracing all of experience.
Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; tickets from $82 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
Mahler finished his Ninth in spring 1910 and died a little more than a year later, just shy of 51. He’d postponed reaching the dreaded nine by refraining from numbering his previous major orchestral work, “Das Lied von der Erde.” Despite sketching out a Tenth, the Ninth was the last work Mahler managed to complete.
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And Mahler’s Ninth is the music Gustavo Dudamel has chosen as the focus for his current tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which culminates in their first visit together (on Nov. 4) to Benaroya Hall since Dudamel became the ensemble’s music director in 2009. The last time the LA Phil played in Seattle was in 2006, under his predecessor (Esa-Pekka Salonen).
“The Ninth is a transcendental statement,” the Venezuela-born maestro said in a recent phone interview. “It comes from a complex moment in Mahler’s life and contains a beauty inside that is unbelievable. I feel so connected with the piece.”
Dudamel’s sense of connection to Mahler — whose first name he is proud to share — actually reaches back to his preteen years. At the time, he was studying violin as part of El Sistema, the vaunted music-education program in his native country that claims Dudamel as its celebrity alumnus.
“My personal connection with Mahler started when I was maybe 11 or 12, and my uncle gave me a CD of the First Symphony,” Dudamel recalls. “And then I heard the orchestra in my town play it.” Fittingly, the first large-scale work he conducted as a student of 16 was Mahler’s symphonic debut, and it appeared on the concert officially inaugurating Dudamel’s directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009.
His international breakthrough came in 2004, when the 23-year-old Dudamel won first prize at a brand-new conducting competition in Germany named after — who else? — Gustav Mahler.
The conductor has since gone on to become one of the most-recognized figures from the classical-music world — familiar enough to be easily recognized as the model for the charismatic Rodrigo played by Gael García Bernal in the web TV series “Mozart in the Jungle.”
Far from representing a hex, Mahler’s Ninth has helped confirm Dudamel’s rank among the most enthralling Mahlerians at work today. His debut recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (released in 2013) was from a live performance of the Ninth. They also performed the work on their first European tour together in 2011 — including in Vienna, the city most associated with Mahler.
Even though he put off conducting the Ninth for years, Dudamel has faced criticism for simply being too young to tackle music that has long been associated with leave-taking and forebodings of death. Yet he speaks of a profound “duality” in the Ninth — “between life and death, love and no love, hope and no hope” — pointing out that Mahler also embraces the beauty of life.
And Dudamel is returning to this music after several years of “letting it rest.” What will be different? “This the amazing thing with music: every time you play the same piece it will never be the same.” Even more so with a score as fathomless as Mahler’s Ninth, which can “bring you to another level.”