Mahler 7 at the Kimmel Center

I just got in from hearing the London Symphony and Gergiev do Mahler 7. Received wisdom says that this is a problematic piece, with the outer movements not seeming to be from the same piece as the inner movements, especially the two Nachtmusiken; the finale also comes in for criticism as being strangely banal. I never found the work to be a problem, but I have an odd relationship with the piece – it was the first Mahler I ever heard, when I brought home an LP copy of Lenny and the NY Phil from the public library back in my home town. I was caught right in the first few bars, and have had a special affection for the piece ever since. I had the privilege of hearing Bernstein conduct the piece in the 80s, and it was the way he could capture the nuances of tempo that I missed tonight. Gergiev simply played the piece too darn fast. The first movement was the best, but the 2nd, 4th and 5th were all rushed. Rehearsal 72 in the second movement is marked molto moderato in 4/4 but tonight it was played as though in 2/2, with a moderately moving half note. It was impossible to articulate the staccato triplet offbeats in the horns at 3 before 79, and so the charming waltz-like effect was lost.

Maybe it was just the Lenny charisma, but somehow he made the finale work – it was ironic in its juxtapositions. There is that startling moment when a soft a-flat chord is revealed when a tutti C major chord cuts off, and there are similarly abrupt inflections of tempo – I count 72 indications of tempo changes and nuances in the score of the finale. And yet the piece is sincere as well – the bell-ringing passage near the end is genuinely joyful. Tonight’s rushed performance seemed to bring out the banalities, and lacked the sense of irony that Bernstein achieved. At moments it seemed like Mahler had been influenced by Shostakovich, which is not a good thing, in my book.

While the conducting was dismaying, the playing was magnificent – rich in dynamic contrasts, virtuosic in the demanding solos (the horn playing was memorable), precise and clear, but warm in ensemble sound. The end of the fourth movement was magical, as it should be – all credit to Mahler and the players rather than the conductor.

It is not a new post, but via Classical Convertchoose your own Mahler Symphony cycle.

End of the month miscellany

– The New York Philharmonic offers Mahlerian  video, audio and images in connection with their Mahler performances this season. Check out Alma’s reminiscence of attending a seance where Mahler was hit on the forehead by a floating mandolin. Inspiration for the mandolin part in Das Lied?

– NPR has concerts from this past August’s Newport Jazz Festival here.

– Ethan Iverson has re-posted his fascinating take on learning a program of 20th century piano music.

– a friend who keeps offering me ideas for operas has come up with the idea of adapting this. The title character should be assigned to what voice part?

Made in USA

Anthony Tommasini’s piece in today’s Times about the NY Phil’s programming of American music touches on a tricky subject. I’m glad, of course, to see the Philharmonic doing new music at all, and particularly glad to see American composers Marsalis, Rouse and Kernis on the bill for next season. And it does seem reasonable of Alan Gilbert to say that a longer view of the programming over a couple of seasons is necessary to get an accurate sense of his priorities. (Of course that point cuts both ways – he can’t exactly take credit for programming the Kernis which has been in the pipeline for some time.) The Philharmonic is a global citizen, and has a responsibility to bring the work of top composers like Adés and Lindberg from other countries to New York. That is an important service that nourishes our cultural life.

And yet – the Philharmonic also has a responsibility to be a cultural leader in this country and in New York City. Consistently commissioning and presenting a substantial amount of music by American composers is an essential part of that leadership. Here’s hoping that the next composer-in-residence with the Philharmonic will be an American, someone who can give an American face to American music at the Philharmonic.