Tag Archive: Gustav Mahler

The American Symphony Orchestra’s 50th Birthday Celebration: Leon Botstein Conducts Ives’ Fourth and Mahler’s Eighth

Leopold Stokowski

Leopold Stokowski seemed to float in and out of Carnegie Hall last Saturday evening, as Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra in their festive—and massive—50th birthday celebration. In fact Maestro Botstein made it perfectly clear that the concert was as much about the founder as it was about the orchestra in his introductory talk and in his important program note, available on the ASO site. The American Symphony Orchestra was the fruit of over twenty-two years of short-lived attempts by Stokowski to found orchestras which put into practice a few ideals that were dear to his heart: bringing American-born and -trained musicians into the mainstream of classical music, to make orchestral concerts easily and inexpensively available to working people, and to play repertory outside the most familiar classics.

BBC Proms 67 and 69: The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Riccardo Chailly

Riccardo Chailly.

Rocky road.  Rebuilding an orchestra is one of the most complex tasks imaginable, requiring delicate negotiations as well as sometimes abrupt firings, a soothing hand with the musicians’ pride but also a new broom to sweep out the old dust. Riccardo Chailly, who at 69 is an eminence on the podium, set out to renew the venerable Leipzig Gewandhaus, historically the orchestra of Mendelssohn. Languishing behind the Iron Curtain after World War II did them no good, however, and where the Dresden Staatskapelle managed miraculously to keep up world-class standards, the Leipzigers weren’t so lucky. I didn’t hear them during their long dark period, but the recordings that came West were nothing special, except in Mendelssohn.

Mahler’s Ninth. Vladimir Ashkenazy Conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Richard Strauss once wondered about Mahler, to his face I believe, ‘Why don’t you write an opera? You could write such a good opera since you’ve put on so many at the Wiener Staatsoper.’ He didn’t understand and Mahler got pretty angry. In a way Mahler’s symphonies are operas without singers, a sort of total art, in a subjective sense — if that term doesn’t require total sensory stimulation — with vivid use of color and articulate deep expression. The level of abstraction attained by giving up words and human voices enabled him to express more faithfully what really gripped him. The Ninth, like all good symphonies, even more so for Mahler’s but especially in his Ninth, it is a multitude of contents, often all at the same time — ambiguity and paradox seem easily expressed, even refined in Mahler. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s and each of the instrumentalists’ attention and care for each melody, theme, chord and layer in the music make this so clear even as the complexity of the music seems to nourish them; they generously create something fascinating and consoling to listen to — in fact partly because of its complexity it sticks with the listener long afterward.

Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Play Mahler’s Sixth; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto

In a way it is pointless to try to write words on music like this, but here goes anyway. It doesn’t really help to read glib selective quotations from even the composer describing the music, sometimes in a single word, “tragic,” “fate,” “Heldenmord” fail to do justice while missweighing one idea, like a greedy fruit grocer. The Mahlers deep and checkered feelings about his Sixth Symphony are clearer from this quotation from Alma Mahler’s memoirs, even if it does sound ambiguous or contradictory at one level:

Mahler: Symphony No.8 in E flat major, ‘Symphony of a Thousand’

Sacred monster. This year’s Proms season began with the Mahler Eighth, which is like having the Queen Mary tootle up the Thames for the first day of Henley. (To let us down gently, we get Die Meistersinger tomorrow night and Simon Boccanegra the night after that – no musician in London will go without a paycheck this week.) In the bad old days all of Mahler’s symphonies were accused of being freakishly outsized, but only this one, to my mind, qualifies. One longs for it to be smaller, even when the chorus is only six hundred strong, as it was last night, well short of the eight hundred or so it would take to qualify as the “Symphony of a Thousand” – to be fair, the nickname was added by an imaginative impressario. The symphony has trouble getting ashore, but worse than that, Mahler’s conception is self-defeating.

Bernstein’s Mass at the Royal Festival Hall

“My time will come.” This, the most famous quote from Gustav Mahler, wouldn’t seem apt for the music of Leonard Bernstein. His time was now, over and over, whatever decade from the Forties to the Eighties one is talking about. But there were dips in his meteoric trajectory, and Mass, which opened Kennedy Center in 1972, was a drastic one. Reviews weren’t merely dismissive; they expressed embarrassment for the composer, who leapt from his pedestal as an icon of classical music into the arms of hippies, flower children, and the Age of Aquarius. The work owed a distressing amount to Hair, the musical, and less obviously to Benjamin Britten and Bernstein’s own earlier works. As a spectacle, it combined the liturgy of the Latin Mass with episodes of the mob (updated with tie-dye, peasant blouses, and afros) jeering at the Church and belief in God generally. Bernstein wasn’t, shall we say, the most obvious candidate for a work of Christian devotion, and with eyes averted from the schlocky libretto — crafted by Broadway baby Stephen Schwartz, who was young but no wunderkind– the composer’s admirers chose to bury Mass as an ecumenical mess. The prevailing wisdom was that this, too, shall pass.

Mariss Jansons leads the Concertgebouw Orchestra with Janine Jansen at Carnegie Hall in Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, and Mahler

Mariss Janssons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium
Tuesday, February 16, 2010 Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Mariss Jansons, Chief Conductor Janine Jansen, Violin Sibelius, Violin Concerto Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 2 in E Minor Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 8 PM Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Mariss Jansons, Chief…
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Music in a Time of Disaster…The Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Pierre Boulez, Carnegie Hall, January 16, 2010

Pierre Boulez

  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Pierre Boulez, conductor Carnegie Hall, January 16, 2010 Schoenberg, Chamber Symphony No. 2, Op. 38 Schoenberg, Piano Concerto, Op. 42 (Daniel Barenboim, soloist) Webern, Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 Mahler, Adagio from Symphony no. 10 in…
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