A couple of months back Gustavo Dudamel gave New York a taste of his artistry when he brought his own Los Angeles Philharmonic to David Geffen Hall in a concert that featured Yuja Wang in John Adams’s enjoyable new Piano Concerto. Now it was his chance to get his hands on the home team, conducting the New York Philharmonic in Schubert and Mahler, and very impressive he was too.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the New York Philharmonic. Photo © Chris Lee

Das Lied von der Erde is an awkward fish to program. Does it need a companion or is it enough on its own? Dudamel decided to pair it with an early-Romantic symphony, one that at least had Vienna in common with the Mahler. Schubert’s relatively rarely played Fourth Symphony is oddly nicknamed “Tragic” (the title was Schubert’s but apart from being in C Minor it doesn’t come across as especially tortured). The composer was still only 19-years of age and the symphony, though full of good ideas, falls shy of really memorable melodies. Schubert wouldn’t find the means to wed his symphonic skills to his gift for a good tune until the Fifth Symphony of a year later. Meanwhile the Fourth, though hardly a sow’s ear, offers a conductor only limited opportunities to make his mark.

Still, Dudamel did what was needed, delivering a grand opening and plenty of bold contrasts with dramatic sforzandi in a work that sits cautiously between the Sturm und Drang of Haydn, the charm of Mozart, and the passion of Beethoven. The 70-strong Phil responded sensitively, delicate in the conversational Andante, playful in the offbeat hi-jinks of the Menuetto. Dudamel caught the tipsy ländler-like quality in the trio nicely before powering through the racing finale with its atmosphere redolent of “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop” and nailing it with an emphatic three-chord conclusion.

Gustavo Dudamel with the New York Philharmonic and Andrew Staples. © Chris Lee

The hour-long Das Lied, a setting of poems by 8th-century Tang-dynasty poets Li Bai, Qian Qi, Meng Haoran and Wang Wei, occupied the entire second half. Any sinking feeling as NY Phil President and CEO Deborah Borda announced that New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill had woken up with no voice was rapidly dispelled as his last-minute British replacement Andrew Staples launched into the opening Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow). It’s a killer opening, with huge orchestration at times and calls for stamina and high notes aplenty. Many the tenor who runs out of steam by the time he reaches the chilling, climactic description of an ape crouching on a grave in the moonlight: “Hört ihr, wie sein Heulen Hinausgellt in den süßen Duft des Lebens!” (Hear how he howls into the sweet scent of life). Staples was indefatigable with ringing top notes that went on to pay dividends in the fifth song, the manically sardonic Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring).

Dudamel’s interpretation was weighty, even ponderous in the first song, yet later on he proved capable of much tenderness in evocations of the mists of autumn and the conjured reflections of a maiden on a riverbank. He invested Der Trunkene im Frühling with just the right level of drunken swagger, and was dramatically attuned to the mood swings of the long closing Der Abschied (Farewell), steering a sure course between its black-as-the-ace-of-spades opening and its radiant conclusion (the celesta was magically projected here, though the mandolin stood out a trifle). Occasionally it felt as if Dudamel’s focus on dazzling surface detail came at the expense of internal balance, but mostly he was on thumping form, especially in the galloping horse imagery of Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) and punctuating the mournful tread of the finale with explosions bordering on despair.

The orchestra were on fine form, woodwind especially so in the score’s frequent evocations of bird song, both merry and mournful. Acting principal oboe Sherry Sylar played with sinuous tone and a winning flexibility throughout with Robert Langevin (Principal Flute) memorable in the porcelain Chinoiseries of the third son, Von der Jugend (Of Youth). Anthony McGill (Principal Clarinet), Judith LeClair (Principal Bassoon) and Arlen Fast (Contrabassoon) served up notable contributions across the extended, 30-minute final song.

Gustavo Dudamel with the New York Philharmonic and Michelle DeYoung. © Chris Lee

The American mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung was at her best in Der Abschied, her voice warm and steady, responding sensitively to the pensive first person narrative and catching the otherworldly quality in the final sighs of “ewig… ewig…” Earlier on she seemed out of sorts, a little heavy-handed on the higher entries (was it a case of the voice needing to warm up?) and short on fully-rounded bottom notes (Das Lied has often been a calling card for a proper contralto and DeYoung really had nothing to call on in Mahler’s awkwardly set second verse of the horses episode).

If both singers tended to visually over emote, they nevertheless brought an intelligence and fine diction to bear on Hans Bethge’s wonderful translations from the Chinese taken by Mahler from the anthology Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute). In particular, Staples showed a winning flexibility in the lyrical Von der Jugend, shaping the line beautifully as he phrased “Auf des kleinen Teiches stiller, Wasserfläche zeigt sich alles Wunderlich im Spiegelbilde” (On the small pond’s still surface, everything shows whimsical in mirror image).

As a parting gesture, Dudamel managed to hold off the inevitable applause by sheer force of personality. Let’s hope New Yorkers get to enjoy more of his music-making soon.