Those of you print folks who read my column in last Sunday’s Bee know I’m smack in the middle of an intensive 10-day fellowship in classical music and opera in New York. I’m one of 24 classical music journalists from around the country gathered on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for a morning-to-night flurry of lectures, concerts, tours and discussions. I arrived last Saturday evening, and on this following Saturday morning I’m cherishing my first few hours of free time in which I’m able to ponder everything I’ve soaked in so far. Among the highlights:
- The New York premiere of a work by David Del Tredicci at Alice Tully Hall.
- The Broadway production of “West Side Story.”
- Renee Fleming singing the lead role in the Metropolitan Opera production of “Der Rosenkavalier,” which had a running time of four and a half hours. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
- Pianist Murray Perahia performing Chopin’s Etude in C-sharp Minor at Carnegie Hall.
- Bernard Haitink conducting the London Symphony in a monumental performance of Mahler’s 4th Symphony at Avery Fisher Hall.
- Tours of the New York City Opera, the Met, WNYC radio and Carnegie Hall.
- Lectures with experts, a singing lesson with Audra McDonald’s former vocal coach, and writing workshops with classical music writers from the New York Times and New York magazine.
Another memorable moment, but not exactly a good thing, happened when our tour of the beautiful new New York Times newsroom collided with the grim staff meeting announcing that the paper was eliminating 100 more journalist positions. Ugh. One thing I’ll take away from this experience is that the Times classical music department is as understaffed and overworked as most other papers across the country.
I won’t subject you to all the overnight reviews I’ve written, but I’ll share with you my (raw and unedited) draft of the Mahler performance on the jump. It was exhilarating.
Still to come: the “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices” Chinese music festival at Carnegie Hall; the London Symphony Orchestra playing Mahler’s 9th Symphony (yes, I’m gorging on Mahler) and an evening at one of New York’s hottest new performance spaces, Le Poisson Rouge.
MY LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA REVIEW:
Wimpy orchestras need not apply.
Mahler’s 4th Symphony needs the pounding swagger of a battleship. The London Symphony Orchestra, in a sterling performance Wednesday at Avery Fisher Hall under the baton of Bernard Haitink, didn’t disappoint. The Brits strutted in, tucked their tuxedo tails behind their chairs and proceeded to wallop out a mighty fine 4th. The orchestra infused the hall with all the grandiose moments a Mahler junkie might expect: extreme passion, over-the-top pomp, hushed slivers of repose.
Even the occasional acoustical miscalculation – when parts of soprano Miah Persson’s tender vocal line were overwhelmed by the orchestra in the final movement, for example – couldn’t shake this palpable confidence. From the glorious bombast of the third movement to the haunting, childlike demeanor of the fourth, the emotional highs and lows were devastatingly effective. After opening with the sweet sugar rush of Schubert’s 5th Symphony, the Mahler was a monumental experience.
For all the firepower the Mahler requires, many scholars think of it as his most modest. At 60 minutes, it’s his shortest, and it calls for a smaller orchestra than his more massive symphonies. The 1901 work is also considered his most accessible. (Christopher H. Gibbs’ program notes tag it as “normal” and Mahler’s “happiest,” complete with Zagat-style quotation marks, as if satisfied patrons had registered their approval.) Yet the relatively modest size and conventionality of the material belies its tremendous substance.
Though the composer famously resisted efforts to explain the meaning of the work, going so far as refusing to reveal the names of the movements, it’s clear from other writings that he was interested in delivering much more than merely happy sunshine. One title we do know, of the second movement, was originally designated by the composer “Friend Death Strikes Up the Dance,” and it features the concertmaster playing an instrument tuned up one tone – an eerie, ominous premonition. From there, Mahler unleashes the full angst of human mortality – or at least the obsession with it. The rousing third movement, with the French horns leading a brassy charge of invincibility, swells with an almost aching sense of grandeur that suggested to me, at least, the way in which humanity has always built the promise of an afterlife with single-minded determination.
He set the final vocal movement to a collection of folk poetry that had obsessed him more than 10 years. One of those poems, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”), conveys a child’s sense of heaven. But even the youthful naivete of the text – which has as much to do with all the tasty treats available in eternity as anything else – alternates with sharp, assertive bursts from the orchestra. Haitink, who had judiciously meted out the raw Mahlerian sound in the third movement, slammed home the shrill, pungent interludes between the sweetness of the vocal passages. Heaven is oh so sweet, yes, but what are these moments of harshness? It’s enough to send a seeker of enlightenment scurrying back to the philosophy books.
Perhaps that’s what made Haitink’s presence at the podium in the midst of all this ambiguity so reassuring. White-haired and stately, he exuded the gravitas of a wise cleric who knew as many questions as answers – someone who’d been around long enough to build on the mysteries of Mahler, not just cram him down our throats.