Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hearing Mahler's 9th in Harrisburg

Sunday night may have been a great night for the film, Slumdog Millionaire, but I wonder how many people may be watching this film 100 years from now?

I guess it’s an elitist attitude to question how important to the general public something like a new award-winning movie is, currently popular, compared to the news coverage and the general view of the validity of classical music to today’s society, apples and oranges aside. Local coverage of the arts in many cities and smaller towns outside the major metropolitan centers might be considered laughable if it weren’t such a sad commentary on the culture of our times, dismissed because the audience is older and a smaller, less interesting demographic to the commercial well-being of society or, rather, their individual bottom-lines (how do you define “elitism”?).

At the “talk-back sessions” following each concert of the Harrisburg Symphony, conductor Stuart Malina often says, with this ever-boyish grin, “Am I the luckiest guy in the world, or what?!” He of course is modestly assessing his own role in the process since an important part of the performance comes from the orchestra’s being inspired by his own enthusiasm and their trust in his interpretation (unlike many orchestras where mutual respect is often sadly lacking).

After hearing both performances of Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony this past weekend, a work that was written 100 years ago, all I can say is, “Are we a lucky town or what?!”

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In the decades that I’ve heard concerts in New York City, Philadelphia or Baltimore with their major orchestras – especially New York, where the world’s best orchestras come to play – I have not heard many concerts to match the enthusiasm and compelling interpretation I heard in the Forum this weekend with the Harrisburg Symphony. Given the technical proficiency of a full-blown professional orchestra like the New York Philharmonic or the Philadelphia Orchestra, where musicians play together on a much more regular basis and make a living doing so, you might expect to feel a reaction like this more often.

Technically, there’s little to fault the Harrisburg players on – even with only two or three barely noticeable mistakes (and even then, given the over-all emotional involvement, I wonder how important they were), it was still better on a purely technical level than many performances I’ve heard of major works by major orchestras. A few years ago I heard the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra play Beethoven’s “Eroica” in what was, for an orchestra of that level, a clam-bake with muffed notes, sloppy entrances, loose ensemble playing and an overall undernourished emotional connection as if many of them were transmitting it to the hall on their cell-phones. I mean, this is Beethoven’s freaping “Eroica” – I don’t care if you don’t like your conductor: how many times have you played this piece?!

Or maybe that’s part of it. When I was personnel manager for the Harrisburg Symphony, it was easy to get musicians to come in from far and wide to sub for concerts with Mahler’s 2nd or Stravinsky’s Petrushka on the program; not so much for another symphony by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky.

Certainly, part of the enthusiasm I heard on the stage was the fact most of the players there were playing such a monumental work for the first time and possibly quite likely the only time in their careers. Even Stuart acknowledged, never having done it before, that he may never have an opportunity to do it again. There are so many things to get into in this piece, it would be fascinating to come back to it and perform it at another time, but there’s very little chance with an orchestra like this to schedule it again – or to be hired as a guest conductor somewhere saying “Yeah, could we do Mahler’s 9th?”

I walked into the first rehearsal last Thursday to familiarize myself with how they will perform it, primarily to help me formulate my pre-concert talk, but also because I’ve never heard Mahler’s 9th live and wanted every opportunity to hear as much of it as possible (unfortunately I had to miss the dress rehearsal Saturday morning because I needed to write out that pre-concert talk...).

What I heard Thursday afternoon blew me away – not from the sheer force of sound but by how well prepared the players were. They already had their parts “down,” having spent the necessary time preparing themselves individually in advance. People might think musicians come to a rehearsal, are handed the parts and then they learn to play it during the rehearsals. But in something like this, hours and hours of preparation time go into learning each player’s individual notes before the rehearsals begin, then putting all of their parts together to create the whole piece.

This is a hard piece to play, too, once you start putting everybody together: there were things going on here at this first “read-through” that were cleaner and clearer than some of the recordings I have – and I’m talking Vienna Philharmonic (which was Mahler’s orchestra, once upon a time – okay, so they never liked him or his music, but still, it’s the Vienna Philharfreakingmonic) or the Columbia Symphony (comprised of the best musicians in Hollywood who were expected to read at sight and play with minimum rehearsal when they recorded movie soundtracks in the old days), both conducted by Bruno Walter (who premiered the piece in 1912 and should know it better than anybody else), plus a couple of others that should probably remain nameless.

The biggest problem is the mush that results from Mahler’s dense polyphony, all the different lines running against each other which sometimes are harmonically and rhythmically so different that you begin to lose the definition of the lines in what becomes a more anonymous wash of sound. Shaping the lines helps. And observing Mahler’s immensely detailed dynamics for the different parts also helps bring clarity to the music. Of all performances in the Forum, a hall not known for its helpful acoustics, I had expected this one to be a real nightmare in getting the balance right and yet it was one of the best balanced performances I have ever heard there.

Great conductors have stood up on the podiums in front of great orchestras in the past and beaten time but little else. Even Bernstein admitted, if Mahler put everything into the articulations and dynamics of the parts, there should be little work he’d need to do, but knowing music like this doesn’t play itself, he still felt the need to approach the orchestra with the same intensity Mahler approached writing the music down, as if “selling it” to the players to make it come across.

There is more than just music, here: in addition to a complicated musical aesthetic from a time when 19th Century Romanticism was ending and the 20th Century’s new approaches were beginning, there are also philosophical issues and even psychological ones to take into consideration. Music was becoming more than placing the notes and pacing the phrasing: it was becoming more “what does the music mean?” What is the composer trying to say? What is going on behind the surface?

Of course, these are intangibles and cannot be known without a detailed account from Mahler (or any composer) describing what was going on in his mind at the time he was writing it, even if it didn’t matter to him once the piece was done. Mahler did not write epic programmatic symphonies in the 19th Century sense of the “symphonic poem,” telling the story of Faust, say, directly or indirectly through musical and literary allusions. Nor was he necessarily attempting to write autobiographical music. But like any artist, part of himself automatically went into it. The vastness and complexity of the results reflect the composer, self-indulgently or not, the times the work was composed in and, in some way, might be a summation of everything the composer had experienced up to that time and might anticipate to come, life-events and other music that might have influenced him, once composers began writing music for posterity rather than for a given “moment” in time for sheer entertainment. You can appreciate Beethoven’s “Eroica” without needing to know anything about Napoleon or the years of warfare Europe was suffering (and would continue to suffer) when Beethoven wrote it. You can do the same with Mahler, though sometimes comprehending some of this background information can make you a better informed listener and help you appreciate it more. Otherwise it becomes a tediously long endurance test that might challenge your attention as much as it might your ability to sit still that long.

I first heard Mahler’s 9th in the mid-60s when I was in high school, thanks to recordings available at the Dauphin County Library in Harrisburg. But this was the first time I’d heard it live. And it’s a very different experience, especially sharing that experience with some 1200 or so people (probably more, Saturday night, if others had chosen to brave the weather forecast). To say “you could hear a pin drop” during the last several minutes of this symphony, with its long unwinding final phrases, more silence than notes, is a reasonable use of the cliche: except for a few unfortunate coughs, it was nearly silent in the hall – Saturday night, someone was attacked by a wracking cough and escaped to the lobby, unfortunately missing the ending but not really ruining it for everybody else; Sunday afternoon, with a few minutes to go, one couple stomps out through the promenade in the back of the hall and I could hear every footstep, the side door slamming behind them – but still they failed to derail the audience’s intense attention. One of the people sitting in the row in front of me had trouble concentrating during the first movement (flipping through the program booklet until he apparently had it memorized) and though a conversation between him and the person next to him at the start of the 2nd movement boded badly for the last movement, it seemed by then, almost an hour later, he had become involved enough in it to be one of the first people to stand up and applaud once the silence was broken.

Endings like these are treacherous with audiences. Not everybody’s going to like the piece: I’m always afraid somebody will do what one maladroit did in New York with such an ending (I forget the piece), saying in a stage whisper that would’ve done a Broadway actor proud, “Well, thank God that’s over!” (speaking of self-indulgent). The slightest nervousness, the least cough, the preparation for that fast dash to be the first one out of the parking lot – I’ve heard all these in New York. People talked to each other – this was in the days before cell-phones, too – like they were in their own living rooms, oblivious to the other thousand or so people around them. Two women talking about bean soup recipes destroyed a whole performance of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony at Lincoln Center. So it says a lot for the Harrisburg audience – which jaded New Yorkers might deem “provincial” – when I say how palpably real their attention was to this performance.

This was due, of course, as much to the intensity of the performance as the music itself, but it was also felt by the musicians on the stage who then fed from the energy and concentration of their audience and became part of the circle – Mahler’s music enhanced by the performers involved the audience who inspired the performers who made the music an even more incredible experience.

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There were details of interpretation, in a work that can be interpreted so many different ways, that made a lot of sense to me: often, conductors take the two middle movements too fast, emphasizing from the first beat the manic quality of this music. But that’s not how Mahler writes the tempo markings. The second movement, marked “In the tempo of a comfortable Ländler,” is a rustic dance movement; the third, which he marks “very fast and insolent,” is a picture of the urban social whirl Mahler disliked so much. Both are unsophisticated snapshots written in a highly sophisticated style with a great deal of earthiness and bitterness and finally downright sarcasm. Each movement gets faster toward the end and if it’s wild and flailing from the beginning, it becomes tiring and pointless.

Malina took the dance movement at face-value to begin, three dances in three different tempos, one after the other. But Mahler begins slipping bits of them around until they become something of a jumble, as if you’ve been bar-hopping and listening to the band in one bar playing this song but you’ve still got what the band in the other bar had been playing stuck in your mind. And as often happens when people go bar-hopping, the music (or the perception of the music) becomes increasingly more inebriated. At one point, Mahler writes the fragments of tunes whirling around him as if they’re playing wrong notes or breaking off as if they couldn't remember how they went any more. At another point, while everybody’s boom-chucking away on the back-beats and the tune is joyfully working its way through the string section, the woodwinds suddenly break into a unison folk-song soaring up and over everything else as if everybody at the bar just broke out in song. By the end, the oddness of the passages with the piccolo and the contrabassoon, these extreme registers, make more sense in their unsteadiness.

The third movement is a different kind of party-scene, perhaps: urban popular music is the focus here, circa 1900, as opposed to Mahler’s beloved folk music. Here, his attitude toward the vulgarity of pop music as opposed to the ideal symphonic world he was trying to create is very clear, especially when you realize one of the tunes that’s being “burlesqued” in this movement becomes the spiritually soul-filled hymn of the last movement.

Whether it’s drinking or just his mounting frustration with the hypocrisy of this party, you can feel his blood-pressure rise as the movement progresses until by the end it becomes wilder and more frenzied, much the way Ravel’s La Valse would later do a few years later, capturing this same Vienna at this same period of time, the decadent decade before society’s collapse with World War One. This music is anything but polite, but if you start it so it sounds “lively and spirited” (how do you define insolence musically: self-assured in its vulgarity?) and then let it turn nasty and violent (psychologically if not physically) as it progresses (or rather, disintegrates), then it has somewhere to go – all downhill. All it needed was a disco-ball interacting with the increasing tempos. By the end, it’s as if Mahler slammed the door and ran out into the quiet of the night.

While it didn’t surprise me to hear great playing in the solos, it did surprise me to realize how many players in the orchestra had them, no matter how briefly, and how wonderful they sounded. Mahler frequently writes a long-lined melody but somewhere along the way, the strings fade out and suddenly you’re hearing the English horn play it for a few measures and then it goes on to other instruments like a slowly-changing color-wheel. Even instruments not usually associated with solos have their moments to add to this sound-world, like the E-flat clarinet, the piccolo and the contrabassoon, even if it’s only a flash in the texture. There are several solos for the concertmaster but also quite a few for the principal violist. A cello solo in the last movement may be only two measures long and very very soft but it is heart-rending in its brief moment.

The biggest share of the solos go to the principal horn and the principal flute, both of whom joined Malina for the post-concert “talk-back” sessions. For Eric Reed, this was his first concert with the orchestra, having won the audition in September for the 3rd horn chair, except now he was substituting because the 1st chair player was on a leave-of-absence to play in the Dallas Symphony the rest of the season. No pressure there, coming in and, for your introduction, playing some of the biggest horn solos in the repertoire! Though Mahler sometimes requires 8 or 10 players in other symphonies, he uses only four horns here, but they are kept very busy: small wonder the horn section stood on stage after Sunday’s concert, having a group photograph taken, whether it becomes an “I Survived Mahler’s 9th” T-shirt or not.

There’s a different mind-set between playing as part of the group and playing a prominent solo, no matter how long it might be: add to that the physical stamina of playing for 90 minutes and, when you’re not playing, just sitting there unable to unwind and relax.

And if playing the piece isn’t challenging enough, at the end of the last movement, after all this, the strings are spinning out these last long threads barely connecting the music to the world while the rest of the orchestra has already finished playing. But now, they can’t move because the slightest motion on stage becomes a distraction that will ruin the moment, diverting the audience’s focus. It’s easy for musicians on a stage of 80 or 90 players to think no one will notice if a couple people look around like they’re relieved or bored or take a moment to scratch an ear or impatiently fluff their hair. But even here, I would say many of the major orchestras and chamber groups I’ve seen don’t always seem to understand that playing and even not playing are still part of the audience’s theatrical experience, seeing as well as hearing a work performed live. And it’s another example of this orchestra’s sensitivity to what they’re playing and how well they’re playing it.

At no time was I ever aware this was a part-time orchestra that gets together in a smaller metropolitan area (not one of the major urban centers of the nation) to play seven concerts a season. If it hadn’t been for the sound of the Forum, I could’ve closed my eyes and thought I was in some place like Carnegie Hall. Are we a lucky town, or what?!

- Dr. Dick

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