Drinking In Mahler

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

This past weekend, the biggest cultural event on the East Coast was James Levine's season opening concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Levine wanted to make a big splash with his debut and things don't get much bigger than Mahler's Eighth Symphony. Performed by over a thousand people when it debuted in Munich almost a hundred years ago, the Mahler Eighth represents the symphony as spectacle. Maestro Levine only heightened this aspect by casting some of the world's biggest opera stars as the piece's soloists.

At Carnegie Hall on Monday night, the star tenor Ben Heppner canceled and uber-soprano Jane Eaglen sounded like she had a chunk of spaetzle stuck in her throat, but Levine and the BSO delivered enough orchestral fireworks to make the evening sufficiently memorable.

But New York and Boston were not the only places to witness Mahler spectacles this past weekend, as Los Angeles these days has been a pretty good place to experience the music and life of Gustav and Alma Mahler.

Just as the Met's James Levine was making his debut in Boston, Los Angeles Opera's new Music Director, James Conlon, was conducting Mahler's First Symphony with the LA Philharmonic. The First may not be quite as epic as the Eighth Symphony, but Conlon and the LA Phil made it sound every bit as exciting. This is yet another example of guest conductors teaming up with the Philharmonic to produce exquisite renditions of Mahler's symphonies.

Last summer, they performed a breathtaking version of Mahler's Ninth for Pierre Boulez at Ojai, and in December they played a moving rendition of Mahler's Sixth for Michael Tilson Thomas. Expectations will be high next month when the young conductor Daniel Harding leads the orchestra through Mahler's unfinished 10th Symphony.

But Disney Hall is not the only place in LA to hear Mahler, just a few blocks down Bunker Hill the composer's music can be heard throughout the Los Angeles Theatre--a grand old movie palace that is now home to a unique new play about Mahler's wife, titled simply Alma.

The title is about the only thing that's simple about Alma. This theatrical experience has been imported from Vienna, naturally, and it's the work of Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol and Austrian director Paulus Manker. The two call Alma a &quotpolydrama;" because it does not follow one narrative line--in fact the audience must choose which aspects of Alma Mahler's life to watch.

Upon entering the gilded lobby of the Los Angeles Theatre you are greeted with a flute of authentic Austrian sparkling wine. Soon an elderly woman in black appears, welcoming you to what she calls Alma Mahler's 125th birthday party. Soon three young woman appear, each claiming that they are in fact the real Alma Mahler. Then the room turns into a scene out of a turn-of-the-century operetta as other &quotguests;" start singing and dancing to Tom Lehrer's song The Loveliest Girl in Vienna. Then all four Almas disperse to different parts of the theater, leaving the stunned (and slightly inebriated audience) to wonder what exactly is going on.

The next three hours can be spent anyway you choose. There are around 50 scenes in all--but of course you can only see a fraction of them. You can follow the Alma who argues with her mother about why she wants to marry the older composer. You can follow an older Alma and her 3rd husband Franz Werfel try to escape the reach of Nazi's. Or you can watch more scenes dealing with her liaisons with other members of Viennese high society.

About the only thing that is fixed in Alma is the three course Austrian meal that is served during intermission, complete with schnitzel, goulash, and of course, pastries. To describe much more of Alma is to destroy its delicate assembly of stagecraft, music, historic re-creation, and gastronomy. Alma aims to satisfy more senses than your average work of theater and therefore it would seem to be a must see for those infatuated with the Mahlers or for theatergoers who are hungry for something new.

Alma runs at the Los Angeles Theatre through December 5.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.