Monday, April 8, 2013

Symphonic Splendor: A Journey with Mahler (Part 1)


The concert this weekend is "Symphonic Splendor: Respighi's Pines of Rome and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5" with the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina at the Forum, Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm, with Assistant Conductor Greg Woodbridge's pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

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One day, a leading critic in Vienna complained over lunch to conductor Gustav Mahler, director of the Imperial Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic, about not only his obsession with the music of Richard Wagner but his unbounded enthusiasm for it which, he thought, was like the foie gras they were dining on at the Café Imperial.

Asked what he meant by that, the critic explained “because geese are force-fed until they develop a liver disease which produces the succulent foie gras. You, when you prepare a new production [of a challenging opera], stuff yourself with enthusiasm and this results in a marvelous performance.”

Mahler rather enjoyed this and so began announcing an impending new production by saying “the foie gras will soon be ready.”

When faced with bad reviews, he might respond, “the Big Bosses [the major critics in town] once again consider it a liver disease… but we think the foie gras will be excellent!”

Mahler Symphonies can have a similar impact: conductors and orchestra musicians may seem to go over the moon about Mahler, stuffed full of their own enthusiasms, as might many listeners in the audience who consider themselves Mahler Fans.

But yet many listeners – especially those unfamiliar with Mahler’s music – tend to shy away from the chance to experience it, sometimes (to quote Yogi Berra) “staying away in droves.”

(Didn’t think I could work a sports reference into a post about Mahler, eh? Don’t forget the baseball team of the Pittsburgh Symphony called themselves the “Pittsburgh Mahlers”…)

I’ve heard Stuart Malina conduct several Mahler symphonies with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra including the challenging 9th and the expansive 3rd as well as the more frequently encountered 1st and 2nd. I look forward to the 5th knowing what to expect of a symphony I happen to be stuffed full of enthusiasms for, myself.

Now, in the past, ticket sales for Mahler concerts tend to be “down” when balancing box office in-take with payroll out-flow, given the size of the orchestra one needs to perform these works.

Yet I have never heard anything less than “extreme enthusiasm” from Harrisburg audiences for our performances of Mahler here in the past. The problem doesn’t seem to be the music – the problem is getting past the audience’s preconceived notions that somehow you cannot enjoy a Mahler symphony.

I’m not sure how that perception ever got started. Well, actually, I can… I think it’s primarily because they are such very long works – a single piece that is about an hour long (as is the 5th) or even more (the 3rd can clock in at an hour and forty minutes). Very often, it’s the only piece on the program, meaning if you don’t like it, you’ve wasted your whole evening.

But I look at the people who are standing and cheering – more than the usual obligatory standing ovation – and realize the “problem with Mahler” is obviously not the music but in getting people not already familiar with Mahler into the hall.

Here’s Stuart’s introduction to this month’s Masterworks Concert, Symphonic Splendor, which includes Respighi’s colorful and vibrant evocation of Rome, his symphonic suite The Pines of Rome which ends with the dazzling “Pines of the Appian Way,” a finale brilliant and crowd-pleasingly loud enough to end any concert with an immediate Standing O.

Yet that’s only the first half! As they say on TV, “But wait! There’s MORE!!!”

With Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 on the second half, you have another work that is also colorful and vibrant, brilliant and, at times, crowd-pleasingly loud with an affirmative ending that can’t help but inspire you long after the music has stopped. And in between, one of the most gorgeous slow movements Mahler ever composed, an Adagietto that has taken on a life of its own in the concert hall outside the complete symphony.

“When you listen to Mahler,” as Stuart Malina says in his season preview from last September, “ it’s like taking a musical journey, you never know which direction he’s going to take you but at the end of the evening you feel like you been through not just a concert, not just a performance, but an experience...a life experience.”

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To anyone thinking Mahler is obsessed with death – and certainly his last two symphonies were written when he knew he was dying – the fact the 5th Symphony opens with a funeral march may seem daunting.

On the other hand, considering where this token of death leads us, it is not something we haven't experienced before: there are famous funeral marches in Beethoven’s Eroica or Chopin’s B-flat Minor Piano Sonata, much less Mahler’s own 1st Symphony (with its odd minor-mode version of Frere Jacques).

However, it seems odd to start a heroic symphony – which in essence it seems to be – with the death of the hero. Where do you go from there?

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Alan Gilbert conducts the National German Radio Symphony: 1st Movement (in two clips)



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From this tragic opening, the dramatic 2nd Movement (marked “Stormy, agitated, with great vehemence”) may seem an unexpected contrast, but Mahler is full of such emotional shifts.

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Not a great recording, but it’s Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony on tour in Tokyo with the 2nd Movement:



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After this, yet another stark contrast: now, we hear a whirlwind of a life-affirming scherzo, a flood of experiences swirling around us in joyful chaos. This is actually, as Mahler himself said, the heart of the entire symphony. Curiously, it was also the first music from the symphony he composed.

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Osmo Vänskä conducts the Minnesota Orchestra at the London Proms:

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The Adagietto, the most familiar movement of the symphony, becomes a dream-like respite, all strings and harp in its luxurious undulations.

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Claudio Abbado conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in the “Adagietto” from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5:

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The finale, then, gradually wakes us up to another vibrant confirmation, complete with a grand chorale and a rush to victory at the end.

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Georg Solti conducts the Chicago Symphony in this London (Decca) Recording (sorry, couldn’t find a decent live performance/recording…)

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When I was reading about Mahler’s life before he began work on this new symphony in the summer of 1901, there was an experience that no doubt had a profound impact on a composer who’d turned 40 the previous summer.

It was over Christmas, 1900, that he was preparing the final copy of his 4th Symphony to send to his publisher. There was an idea that he changed in the scherzo which has this violin solo he now felt should be played on an instrument with its strings tuned a step higher than normal, so that “it will have a harsh, shrill sound, as though Death were playing it.” This, in the middle of a symphony that ends with a rapturous and child-like evocation of a Heavenly Banquet!

After the holidays, back to business as usual, Mahler was preparing for a new production of Wagner’s first successful and rarely performed opera, Rienzi when a recurring throat infection was diagnosed as tonsillitis. He monitored the dress rehearsal from his bed via phone, but felt well enough to conduct the opening night performance. A few days later, on January 27th, and not yet recovered, he conducted Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Shortly afterward, he received word of the death of Giuseppe Verdi who’d died on the 27th at the age of 89. Verdi was a composer for whom Mahler felt an “almost affectionate veneration.” Friends remarked he seemed very affected by this news.

February began with the belated premiere of a work he had written when he was 20, half his life ago, Das klagende Lied, this “Sorrowful Song” which he’d referred to even then as his “child of sorrow.”

He was surprised by how well it had stood up, considering his musical style had developed considerably over the time in between. The general response from the audience was genuinely enthusiastic, though the critics (as ever with Mahler) were often derogatory. Many of them were conflicted, trying to separate Mahler the Conductor from Mahler the Composer.

Next came a concert which included a rare performance of Anton Bruckner’s 5th Symphony, a vast work that Mahler thought was uneven – though he had never officially studied with Bruckner, he attended many of his lectures and the older composer became something of a mentor to him – and so he made many cuts which enraged Bruckner’s fans. He had chosen not to support a recent memorial to Bruckner because he didn’t want to see his name next to those who had never bothered to support the composer during his lifetime when he had very little professional much less popular support, but his lack of “interest” in the monument was taken for arrogance and disloyalty. Plus he had already declared that there was “nothing to be done for Bruckner without a scalpel.”

On February 24th, he conducted the Bruckner at a 12:30 concert and then conducted Mozart’s Magic Flute at the opera that evening.

That same night, Mahler suffered a hemorrhage – not the first he’d had, but the most violent – in which, he later told Richard Strauss, he’d lost 2.5 liters of blood. His sister found him lying in a pool of blood, called the doctor who felt obliged to call a surgeon. Had they arrived a half hour later, the doctor told him, it would’ve been too late.

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“You know,” [he told a friend of his], “last night I nearly passed away. When I saw the doctors… I thought my last hour had come. While they were putting in the tube, which was frightfully painful but quick, they kept checking my pulse and my heart. Fortunately it was solidly installed in my breast and [I] determined not to give up so soon… While I was hovering between life and death, I wondered whether it would not be better to have done with it at once, since everyone must come to this in the end. Besides, the prospect of dying did not frighten me in the least, provided my affairs are in order, and to return to life seemed almost a nuisance.”
(quoted in Henry-Louis de la Grange, Gustav Mahler: The Years of Challenge (1897-1904) vol. II of his vast four-volume biography)
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That same day, he was examining the proofs of his 4th Symphony which the publisher had ready for him and was horrified to realize the copyist had marked the slow movement (which acts as a transition into the finale) in second place, followed by the Scherzo with its Death’s Fiddle solo.

“If I had died last night, the entire structure and significance of the work would have been destroyed!”

Then, between that and dwelling on his usual spate of bad reviews, he drafted an obituary notice: “Gustav Mahler had finally met the fate he deserved for his many misdeeds.”

And that, you might assume, is why Mahler began his next symphony with a Funeral March.

You’d think

To be continued

- Dick Strawser

1 comment:

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