Tag Archives: Mahler

Mahler in Minnesota

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Alma Mahler

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In January 1918, Alma Mahler Gropius saw writer Franz Werfel at a performance of her dead husband’s fourth symphony.

During the concert, Alma and Franz exchanged long, lingering glances.

At intermission, she brought him home, cheating on the man she had cheated on Mahler with.

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra, Sibelius and Mahler

Can you believe it’s the last Microreview of the season? What HAPPENED? It’s like…time passed or something!

Rob Hubbard caught the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sibelius 6 and 7, but not the Mahler, and he wrote about it in a June 4th Pioneer Press article. His report was 366 words, and so, as is tradition, mine is 363.

But before I get to that, I want to quickly extend my thanks to all those who made this season such an extraordinary one. The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, of course, and their Music Director, as well as their beloved audience, the professional and amateur writers who covered this institution this year, the readers who cared so deeply about what we said, and Minnesota Public Radio, whose broadcasts have brought so much joy into so many listeners’ lives. And a special shout-out to Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith, who I was lucky enough to meet this season!

I’m probably going on a Microreviewing hiatus over the summer. I have lots to do in preparation for moving home base to the Twin Cities this year. But look for them again this fall, and in the meantime, feel free to contribute your own. And don’t be surprised if one fine Friday evening during Summerfest you find me yapping and #livelarking away on Twitter.

So without further ado –

***

This was a program of personal premieres. I’ve never sat through Sibelius six or seven or even Mahler one. Turns out I was busy the last two years. So I’m in no position to describe the fidelity of the performance to the score. But I can say what this music made me feel my first time around.

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra in Haydn, Mahler

Well, that period of my life is over, so…back to Microreviews, I guess.

For those new to the blog, Microreviews are my thoughts on that week’s Minnesota Orchestra MPR broadcast. There’s only one catch: they have to be the same length or shorter than the mainstream media’s review.

Rob Hubbard at the Pioneer Press was the sole professional reviewer of this concert of Haydn and Mahler. He gave the show a 516 word rave: “one of the most arresting performances I’ve encountered in recent memory.”

***

I’m in the midst of packing away my mother’s things, so this week’s Minnesota Orchestra performance of farewell-flavored works felt timely.

The first work on the program was Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, the (can you guess the nickname?) Farewell. Unfortunately, my first impression was fuzziness, especially in the upper strings. It was impossible to tell if this was the acoustic, the recording, or the exposed nature of the part writing. I also have a hunch there was a discussion on vibrato that ended inconclusively. Regardless, it was charming – of course. It was Haydn. And nobody else milks leaving the stage like the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.

But the evening’s center of gravity was, of course, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). I love the description of Das Lied as chamber music for orchestra, and Minnesota amped up this idea with some truly virtuosic clarity. Any fuzziness in the Haydn was long gone after the auxiliary forces took the stage. The ensemble’s confidence and cohesion spoke well for the Mahler 5 recording scheduled for June 2016.

Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and mezzo Mihoko Fujimura were beautiful to listen to. In fact, the first few movements were all very beautiful.

But from its very first notes, the finale felt different. It felt more than beautiful. The opening oboe and flute solos had a sultriness; the answering mezzo a haunting chaste purity. This was the dangerous beauty of a lush late summer night, sun gone, wild meadows lit now by the moon. The lower winds and strings laid out a soft carpet of a dirge. The upper strings slid above them with clear, silvery tones.

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As Mahler wrote:

I stand here and wait for my friend;
I wait to bid him a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side
to enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!

It was chilling, and hugely unsettling.

As affecting as the broadcast was, clearly it was even more so in the hall. The best Mahler is live Mahler. And so this broadcast made me all the more desperate to box up the past and finish my own farewells.

***

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Review: Minnesota Orchestra, Alisa Weilerstein in Barber, Mahler

As the house lights dimmed in Orchestra Hall on Sunday afternoon, I relaxed into the thought: when I write my next entry, I can focus on the musicI won’t need to write about barn-burning musician speeches, a defiant audience Euro-clapping and waving Finnish flags, or recurring flashbacks about being on the wrong side of the shrubbery. Instead, I’ll be able to write about how our Minnesota Orchestra performed Mahler and Barber.

That is as it should be. That feels good.

And so it is that Minneapolis is gradually acclimating to life post-lockout. We’re like a man who has been in a terrible car crash, gingerly testing out each arm and leg, finding that each limb is still (somehow) in working order. We’re a little bruised and battered. But still whole. And blessed with a whole new appreciation for life, and a whole new sense of purpose, direction, and focus.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s 2014-2015 season opening concert was marketed as a celebration of resurrection, but it was also a paean to ambition. A mere Mahler 2 wasn’t enough for Osmo and his musicians, so they also programmed the Barber cello concerto, one of the most difficult pieces ever written for that instrument. After our long musical drought, this two-and-a-half-hour concert felt like Thanksgiving dinner after a long fast. Trust me, our ears gorged on this music.

Superstar Alisa Weilerstein was the soloist. After he was commissioned to write a concerto for cellist Raya Garbousova, Samuel Barber told her to play her repertoire for him. He was obviously impressed with what he heard. Garbousova and Barber were in close contact during the concerto’s composition, exchanging ideas and inspiration. In a canon that skews so heavily male (Fun Factoid!: the works of Beethoven are performed more often than the works of all women composers combined), I cherish these stories of strong women who shaped our repertoire.

Alisa Weilerstein is the archetype of a strong woman. She is a force of nature – a pagan high priestess – a warrior cello Athena. She tore into the ferocious solo part with equal parts fire and grace, the white hot intensity of her concentration blinding. One moment she was crouching over her cello, listening intently with her ear tilted down. The next she was rolling her head back to watch Erin’s bow, Osmo’s hand – then abruptly lurching forward again to attack another triple stop, another sky-high broken arpeggio. There were a few brief scattered moments where I felt orchestra and soloist weren’t completely synched – Weilerstein’s approach to rhythm might be a bit…impulsive? – but she can carry it off, and if anything, her freedom just added drama to the performance. The third movement in particular was wildly virtuosic, completely impossible, breathtakingly death-defying, a fast unicycle ride on a high wire. It the classiest, brainiest, most exhilarating curtain-raiser imaginable. Next time she comes to town, you simply must go.

Then after intermission came Mahler 2. (Like I said, we were gorging.)

There is a famous old story of Mahler and Sibelius discussing the role of the symphony. Sibelius appreciated the genre’s “profound logic and inner connection.” Mahler disagreed: he said that “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

As we all know, Osmo’s calling card is Sibelius. (Rightly so.) And yet – somehow – his interpretive gifts serve both Sibelius and Mahler brilliantly. Osmo excels at immediately grasping the geography of a piece, no matter how complicated. He’s a perfectionist, but he somehow never gets caught in the weeds. He coaxes the most extraordinary superhuman dynamics from his players. He is honest; he is plainspoken; he abhors artifice. All of those strengths are what make his Sibelius so special.

And here’s the interesting thing: they’re also the strengths that make his Mahler so special, too. And by special, I mean “really really special.” And by really really special, I mean “holy crap, I think we have a Mahler conductor and orchestra on our hands.”

From the very first tremolo, it was clear that Osmo and his band were going to twist the Intensity Knob up to “Batshit Crazy.” And so accordingly, on the very first page, while attacking the growling cello part, principal Tony Ross had a Tony Ross String Incident (TM). Wasting no time whatsoever, he whipped his cello around like it was his dance partner, suddenly had a new C-string in his hand, silently re-tuned, then jumped back in with both feet, no fear, no timidity whatsoever. I mention it because the incident encapsulated the attitude of the whole performance: Let’s just go for it.

Tony’s passion set the bar for intensity. And it was a bar every exhausted musician met again, and again, and again. (Remember, this was their third performance in as many days.) The first movement chromatic death motif was haunting – it turned my stomach – and whenever it found its way into the bass registers, it shook our very seats. The fierce col legno clattering of bow wood on strings brought to mind dancing skeletons. Now and then ethereal moments of hope or even heroism peaked through the texture – rising chords in the brass, the pluck of harp strings, wistful lines in the winds – but they were invariably submerged or absorbed by shifting keys or orchestration. Osmo looked like a traffic cop up there, directing the various piano, mezzoforte, forte lines crossing and intersecting, rising, falling, all the while sculpting, molding, the results, revealing details previously buried away in the labyrinthine tangle of a score.

After the movement seemed to have exhausted itself, a wary peace seemed to descend…

And then, with a jab of Osmo’s hand, an anguished trumpet wail smeared a half-tone down. The following mechanical staccato triplets in the strings made it feel as if the very ground had fallen out from beneath us – and the nearly silent pizzicatos after that thudded like handfuls of dirt thrown onto a coffin.

Devastating.

The simple second movement is a Ländler, an elegant country dance. I’d always thought of it as a rather slow and gentle piece of music, ostensibly meant to contrast with all the death and destruction that has preceded it. Wikipedia says it’s an evocation of happy times in the life of the deceased. But this ländler felt like something different. Yes, it was slow and gentle, but it also had a sinister edge to it, intensified by dynamics one had to strain to hear, as well as rocking phrasing that hit on the rhythms just a tad too hard for a traditional ländler. Melody lines that sound merely lovely in other interpretations came across here as (subtly) sassy double entendres, as bitter muttered inside jokes. And this slightly surly attitude just served to intensify the more outright sarcasm of the third movement. Rolling themes whirled from section to section, showcasing each, constantly changing form, reinventing themselves, unfurling from corner to corner of the stage. It really is an experience to hear a Mahler symphony done live by a major orchestra; Sunday afternoon I realized yet again how recordings are the equivalent of pencil sketches of oil paintings. Anyone who thinks they can truly absorb music solely through recordings is delusional.

Then. After an hour of stunning instrumental color, came the contrast of a single female voice, singing a simple melody. The soloists were sitting behind the orchestra, and at least from my seat, the ascent of this anonymous human voice came a surprise. I didn’t see her stand or open her mouth; there was just, suddenly…sound. Effortless sound. Hugely moving sound. Human sound. Once that voice arrived, all the performance’s snark and sarcasm collapsed, and the energy came instead from a clear-eyed earnestness.

And so as the afternoon went on, the plot of the symphony slowly began to shed its outer layers of despair, cynicism, and world-weariness. We saw and heard fresh glimpses – suggestions, promises of a mighty world to come – obscured now by aural clouds, by sinister orchestration – then re-announced by bold choruses of horns and strings. The sounds came in waves, pounding then receding, almost like the ocean in La Mer.

The moments in which Osmo cued the offstage horns were particularly breathless: his eloquent hand suspended, just barely trembling. That simple gesture from the podium triggered muted faraway calls in another room, another world.

It took me a long while to figure out how to interpret that wide-ranging sprawl of a last movement. The closest I got to a narrative was imagining it as some kind of secular religious service in which the orchestra, chorus, and audience communally worships Art, or maybe the Art in God. I’m Episcopalian, and our Book of Common Prayer contains services for baptism, marriage, last rites, funerals…ceremonies for birth, love, sickness, and death. Paging through our slim little book, you go from the height of human joy, to the depths of human grief, then back again, all in the course of a few minutes. The symphony’s closing half hour reminded me of that idea – in fact, only made sense to me within the context of that idea: symphony as a form of worship. And so listening, there was more than one moment when I wanted to kneel and bow my head, cross myself, murmur ancient prayers, giving thanks at this sacred altar for blessings received. That impulse of spiritual reverence only strengthened when the hushed tones of the Minnesota Chorale entered. Whenever their voices fell silent, I suddenly realized I hadn’t been breathing, that I had no idea how long they’d been singing. Had it been two minutes? Ten? Sixty? They were transporting.

At the epic ending, voices rose, brass soared, bells clanged. They sounded like a church’s pealing after a war. As the final chords sounded, more than one face sparkled wet with tears of awe and gratitude at the magnificence arrayed before us. Here in a blaze of sonic glory was a fiery world created anew.

Rise again, yes, you will rise again,
My heart, in the twinkling of an eye!
What you have conquered
Will bear you to God!

“It’s so obvious,” a musician told me afterward. “But it doesn’t matter.”

***

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Mulling Over Mahler

Most of my practice time lately has been spent prepping the forty-odd-page viola part to Mahler 6. I’ve listened to the piece once a day since I learned I’d be playing it, and I’m now wrestling with a very basic question: do I, or do I not, like this music? I listen again and again, trying to discern some kind of narrative in this ninety-minute mass.


Okay, kids. Gather round.

The first movement begins with a march. It seems to presage the Great War with its grandiose character of pomp, brass, and militaristic pageantry. The grandiosity, however, intimidates more than it inspires. The melodies seep a kind of brave, romantic defiance. They are beautiful at first listen, unnerving at second, and terrifying by twentieth. A strange, listless chorale comes and goes. After five long minutes, just when the thirst for musical violence finally seems to have been quenched, the brutal opening is…repeated. And not just partially so: it is completely, totally, turn-the-score-back-to-the-beginning repeated, with all the strength and savagery of the first go-through. Eventually, a full ten minutes after starting off, we finally move on, but even then the same vicious mood persists for quite a while. After a long protest the music slides into a kind of dreamy moonscape, lit by high tremolo, soft woodwinds, magical celesta. But the dream’s seductive beauty never feels quite right; the memory of that march is always lurking. When the dreamer is awoken, abruptly and without mercy, the militaristic sounds returns, apparently inescapable, inevitable. Things come to a terrifying head at 16:50, when one of the majestic primary themes is twisted in the grandest, most terrifying manner imaginable. As the movement comes to a close, the moods wildly seesaw between heavenly and hellish, wrapping up with a manic, wild-eyed sprint to the finish.

At this point, twenty-five minutes into the symphony, an emotional respite would be more than welcome. (Hint, hint, Mr. Mahler.) Chances are, however, you’re not getting one; many conductors opt to move on to the weighty mid-tempo scherzo instead. (I questioned this decision when I first listened to this piece. Surely the slow movement should be put here, I thought, so I can take a breather from that massive introduction! But then when I found out – spoiler alert! – that the last movement was even bigger than the first, I quickly changed my mind.) At first glance the score looks relatively simple…until you realize that every line contains a new rhythmic pitfall with the capability to derail your whole performance. The emphasis hops from first beats to third beats; fourth beats are sprinkled throughout; the tempo yanks back and forth. The only way I’ve found to keep it all half-straight is by screaming “ONE!!! two three ONE!!! two three” in my head in an attempt to ignore that frequently off-balance third (or fourth) beat. Mahler’s wife Alma famously compared the rhythm of this movement to children playing. As you listen, the metaphor seems apt, even charming…until the orchestra’s bows begin playing a spooky col legno passage, conjuring up the image of little clattering skeletons.

Well, you might say. Bleak ambiguity only goes so far. Things have to start feeling a little more optimistic in the third movement (at 39:30). Right? Wrong. Here we get a theme that is neither major nor minor, neither happy nor sad, neither hopeful nor hopeless, neither yearning nor satisfied…neither black nor white. The only indisputable thing about it is that it is achingly, impossibly beautiful.

So. Apparently Mahler was waiting until the last movement – roughly an hour into the symphony – to express the inevitable heroism, certitude, catharsis, that we’ve come to expect from our monumental symphonic music post-Beethoven.

…Right?

It certainly seems that way when, at the beginning of the final movement, an emphatic line rises from a misty tremolo (55:00). The stage seems set for a grand resolution indeed. However, before long we realize there will be no straightforward Beethovenian triumph. Instead we find ourselves skidding down the rails on a fast, frantic, frenetic ride, clearly uncontrollable (59:00). This is music determined to charge the gates of hell…regardless of the futility of the task.

Then the terrifying militaristic percussion from the first movement comes back…as well as the creepy celesta-laced dreamscapes. There are some uncomfortable moments of deja vu. We’ve tread a lot of water in the past ninety minutes, but you have to wonder: have we really gotten anywhere?

Then, if you were delusional enough to think you had any idea where this was all going, a percussionist raises a person-sized hammer above their head, and you realize, well, clearly all bets are off. At this point absolutely anything could happen and it wouldn’t be surprising.

In case you haven’t heard how Mahler 6 wraps up, I’ll save you the surprise and stop there. Next time you have ninety minutes to spare, look it up. Just make sure you’re not suicidal at the time.

I’ve read so many conflicting opinions about this symphony. Some feel it’s Mahler’s masterpiece. Others see it as seriously flawed: maybe fatally so. Some find it to be fatally flawed…and yet cite it as their favorite anyway. It is said that Mahler cried at the first rehearsals for it, unable to come to terms with what he’d unleashed. Alma alleged that the hammer blows prophesied the catastrophes that would later shake their marriage. Heck, even now, a hundred plus years after its composition, we can’t even agree about something as fundamental as what order to put the movements in. I imagine I’ll get a dozen comments on this post sharply disagreeing with my opinions, and with everybody else’s. Because that’s just the kind of conflicted reaction this massive music seems to engender.

Personally, I go from loving it to loathing it back to loving it again…sometimes within the span of a few measures. Nothing about it is clear. Everything is difficult. A forceful ambiguity reigns supreme. Mahler assembles us in the concert hall, asks humanity’s most important questions, raises an envelope, announces all the answers are within, takes out a sharpened knife, carefully slits open the flap…

And then throws the envelope into a raging bonfire.

What to think?

***

Yesterday I said to my mother, impulsively, “I haven’t felt well lately.”

“In what way?” she asked.

“Mm,” I said.

“How don’t you feel well?” she pressed.

I thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” I said, and I didn’t. I wished I hadn’t even mentioned it.

A moment passed.

“Maybe it’s all the Mahler I’ve been playing,” I finally said.

I’d said it as a joke. But as soon as the words were out, I realized they had an uncomfortable ring of truth to them, and I frowned.

I thought she’d laugh at me, but she didn’t. “That could very well be,” she said, and we both fell quiet for a while.

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