An extraordinary event last night at Carnegie, though one seen by a less-than-capacity crowd, perhaps put off by the sub-zero temperatures here in New York, or tapped out after the Vienna Philharmonic's annual residency this past weekend.
A more likely explanation is that the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a 264-year old institution that was once led by Felix Mendelssohn, still doesn't have anything close to Vienna's name recognition in the west, having grown up behind the Iron Curtain in the former East Germany.
One benefit of this below-the-radar status was the price of admission: instead of paying up to $200 for a ticket to see Vienna, the top ticket last night was less than half of that. (I was actually able to get a decent seat in the fourth row of the center balcony for $35.) And, having heard the Vienna Philharmonic on multiple occasions (both at Carnegie and in Vienna), I can say with confidence that last night's performance was comparable in every way.
One key to Leipzig's current success was the appointment last year of Riccardo Chailly, the former chief conductor of the renowned Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, as their "Gewandhauskapellmeister," or leader. (He also conducts the orchestra in performances at the Leipzig Opera.) Chailly is a fiery leader: the "yin" to this disciplined ensemble's "yang". The end result is nothing short of remarkable: technical perfection married to passionate artistry, each playing off the other's best qualities. By the beaming grin plastered on Chailly's face all night, it seems like he's found his ideal situation.
First up was Schumann's "Spring" Symphony, which the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra premiered (under Mendelssohn) in 1841. The arrangement used in this performance was by Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler, and offered added color and dynamics to the familiar score.
The second half was devoted to Mahler's own 5th Symphony: a sprawling, 75 minute work, split over five emotionally charged movements. During intermission, I snuck downstairs and grabbed an empty seat near the front of the orchestra, and sitting that close, the music was loud and full, even terrifying. Chailly kept the huge ship moving steadily forward, pausing only briefly between the 1st and 2nd movements, and again between the Adagietto and the Finale. Mahler was a specialty of Chailly's while he was in Amsterdam, and his passion for this music was reflected in the Leipzig players - particularly the concertmaster, who played like a man possessed, flailing about as though he had completely lost his reserve.
By the end of the performance, the music was so overpowering, I literally felt like the walls were about to crack, and possibly cave in. But somehow, Chailly managed to keep it all together, and when it finally ended, the crowd erupted in a huge roar, everyone immediately rising to their feet. Chailly shook his fists in the air, as if he himself could hardly believe what he had just witnessed.
In 1781, the Gewandhaus adopted a quote from Seneca the Younger as it's motto, which it has used ever since: "Res Severa verum gaudium." Translation: "True pleasure is serious business." For anyone who was in that room last night, their whole definition of "pleasure" just got changed.