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How I Came Back to Gustav Mahler

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When I was a teenager I got made fun of for, among many other reasons, my taste in music. My choices didn't seem to make sense taken together (Gustav Mahler and the Doors).

Music was for me a private as opposed to a social pleasure, so I didn't care too much what people thought of my record collection. But I did seem to put on the record player the kind of music that you'd hate right away if you walk in the room while it's playing. You just don't get this stuff right away -- it gets into you, and stays inside you.

Despite the genre-bending, I think I liked music that was fearless, outrageous, overwrought, petulant, grandiose, defiant, changeable, ecstatic, desperate, excessive, unapologetic, and impetuous.

These are in some ways quintessentially familiar adolescent qualities, along with the tendency to think a lot about love, sex, and death.

I don't think about those things so much anymore, probably because I've become a responsible adult, and because it's hard to keep up all that intensity for very many years. It's also a little unseemly to be so exposed -- maybe a little self-indulgent that I let myself be moved again and again in the same ways, or a little shameful that anyone knew about it. I'm sure it's been 25 years since I'd listened to a Mahler symphony in recording or in person.

I returned to Mahler, just last month. Gustavo Dudamel, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have been performing all the Mahler symphonies as part of the Mahler Project. I heard the Symphony No. 5 at Disney Hall. The Simón Bolívar Symphony itself is made up of instrumentalists between the ages of 18 and 28. Dudamel himself was the eldest on stage at 30.

All are products of El Sistema, the Venezuelan state foundation for musical education. 75% of the children who enter El Sistema live below the poverty line. "For the children that we work with, music is practically the only way to a dignified social destiny. Poverty means loneliness, sadness, anonymity. An orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork, the aspiration to success." (José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema). Playing an instrument well takes time and discipline, and often a supportive teacher, and playing in an orchestra requires close listening, responsiveness, and collaboration. That alone might be enough to keep kids off the streets.

But the intensity, anguish, and tenderness of music is what touches so many young people, and what draws them to the world of (even classical) music. These qualities are what moved me so much in the Dudamel/Simón Bolívar performance. There are things adolescents know that we forget in middle age; sometimes it takes young people to remind us of them.