In New York, we are fortunate to have the best musicians in the world - classical, pop, electronic, whatever - come visit on a regular basis. Sometimes, it's easy to take this privilege for granted, especially when it comes to a great and historic ensemble like the Berlin Philharmonic, which comes here almost every year. Which, I'll admit, might be part of the reason why I feel I didn't get my money's worth last night at Carnegie Hall.
To start with, I paid $102 for a Dress Circle ticket, which ended up being behind a pillar that partially blocked the right side of the stage. Sorry, but for that kind of money, I don't care who's on stage: I expect clean sight lines. Second, the program was even shorter than I expected: Kurtág's Stele, the only work on the first half, lasted all of 14 minutes. Sure, it was a solid performance of an interesting, challenging work, but would it really have killed them to play something a little longer, or even - shockers - a second piece before intermission? If any other orchestra tried to pull that, people would say they felt ripped off. Well...
At least it allowed me to sneak downstairs and snag what I thought was a great seat on the left hand side of the orchestra, one that would have cost twice what mine had. Unfortunately, less than two minutes into the start of Mahler's 10th - a symphony grounded in silence and extremely quiet playing - the elderly, overweight man next to me began a marathon of wheezing, coughing and labored breathing that continued unabated for the next 80 minutes. Immediately, I regretted not having filled my pockets with free Ricola from the lobby to hand to this unfortunate slob. (On Tuesday, Rattle apparently let the cough-happy audience have it after the first movement of Mahler's 9th: “This is music created from silence and returning to it, " he said. "Please help us create this magic.”)
What I did manage to hear through all that noise, though, was sublime. Mahler died while working on this symphony, and only managed to orchestrate the first and part of the third movement. The rest was "finished" by British composer Deryck Cooke in 1964, with the blessing of Mahler's widow, Alma. While there are definitely some awkward bits that Mahler probably would have smoothed out if he'd been around, most of the music is perfectly valid, encompassing themes from all of Mahler's previous work while charting new, often terrifying territory. Rattle, who has been performing this Cooke edition for almost two decades, conducted from memory, with an intensity that steadily increased throughout the performance. And the playing of the Philharmonic was alternatively lighthearted, brooding, forceful, and subdued - in other words, everything it needed to be. What struck me most of all was the intense attack of the strings, working their bows like pistons.
By the prolonged final movement, Rattle was conducting as if in a trance, the music having completely taken over his movements. At one point, a percussionist left the stage in order to play a bass drum in the wings. Through the open door, Rattle signalled him with an outstretched fist; the sound came forth like death waiting in his tomb. After a brief return to lightness, the trumpets let out a piercing shriek more horrifying than anything I've ever heard. The music then faded out slowly and peacefully as the death struggle finally ceased. Rapturous applause followed, but appropriately, no encore.
The BPO has one final performance before they depart: The Rite of Spring Project tomorrow afternoon at the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights. And, with tickets priced at only $15, I can pretty much guarantee you'll get your money's worth - provided you're willing to make the trek uptown.