I really wanted last night's concert at Carnegie to be better than it was. And, on paper, it looked like it would be: the North German Radio (NDR) Symphony of Hamburg, Germany, led by it's esteemed chief conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, the former music director of the Cleveland Orchestra.
The program started well, with an unsettling performance of Ligeti's Lontano for large orchestra. (For those who think I might be a bit biased about Ligeti's music - guilty as charged.) The performance had an added poignancy, given that Ligeti lived and taught in Hamburg for nearly 20 years, and surely had a relationship with many of these players.
Bizarrely, the next piece on the program was Mendelssohn's 2nd Violin Concerto in E minor, with Russian Vadim Repin as soloist. The performance was capable, but Mendelssohn after Ligeti? Depending on your point of view, it either makes the former sound like bathwater, or the latter a bitter pill. When are music directors going to stop trying to please everybody and realize that a program like this alienates just about everyone? I would have much rather heard Alfred Schnittke's brilliant Violin Concerto No. 4 (1984), which Repin played with the orchestra on Monday night. I'm sure the thought of putting Ligeti and Schnittke on the same program is anathema to most orchestra directors, but a little courage goes a long way in today's fractured concert scene.
I moved downstairs for Gustav Mahler's 1st symphony, hoping to experience the same revelation I had when I heard the Leipzig Gewandhaus play Mahler's 5th three weeks ago. Sadly, neither the conductor nor the orchestra were up to the task: the playing was often fuzzy and uneven, and Dohnanyi - who is 78 and less than spry - appeared lost in his own world at times. The First may have been programmed because it's a tried-and-true crowdpleaser, with it's blazing fanfare in the final movement. But, it is a young man's symphony (Mahler wrote it when he was 28), and requires a youthful approach from whoever's leading the charge.
I left the concert wondering to myself why Mahler's First keeps getting programmed when he wrote eight (nine, depending on who you talk to) symphonies far superior to this one. After all, how often do you hear Beethoven's First symphony? Or Bruckner's? Or Schubert's? And then, I remembered my visit to the New York Philharmonic archives two weeks ago, when I had the chance to review a facsimile of the last score Mahler used when he conducted the Philharmonic in 1911. It was his own First Symphony. Mahler may have been the great symphonic composer of the century, but he made his money as a conductor, working at the pleasure of his board of directors, who were more interested in receipts than artistic advancement. Some things never change, I guess.