Bad-Ass Octogenarians
Tully Scope: Manny Ax

Mahler's NY Symphonies

DSC05921Ok, I'll admit it: there are some Sundays when I just want to sleep in. Or, at the very least, not have to schlep from Park Slope to the Upper West side for the sixth day in a row. (Okay, 5 out of 6, but still.) Such was the case this past Sunday when, having stayed out a bit later than I should have last night at a friend's birthday party, I literally had to drag myself up to Lincoln Center for a matinee concert at Avery Fisher Hall. 

To be frank, if it was the NY Phil, I probably wouldn't have bothered. But, no: this was the London Symphony Orchestra, playing Mahler's 9th and 10th symphonies with their principal conductor, Valery Gergiev. In other words: Attendance Mandatory.

I was late arriving, so I listened to the 10th - a single-movement fragment Mahler left unfinished at his death - from the foyer. The wait gave me the chance to snoop around some of the exhibits from the NY Phil archives where I learned, among other things, that Mahler got railroaded by several hostile critics during his tenure as NY Phil Music Director (1909-1911), taking issue not only with his own compositions, but with his reorchestrations of sacred cows like Beethoven and Schubert. As the NY Tribune's Henry Krehbiel put it so indelicately after Mahler's death in 1911:

"He was looked upon as a great artist, and possibly was one, but he failed to convince the people of New York of the fact, and therefore his American career was not a success."

Fortunately, cranks like Krehbiel didn't deter Mahler: both the 9th and 10th were written during his summers off from the NY Phil while back in Austria. (Back then, they didn't go to Vail.) And, while these valedictory symphonies may not have the same American stamp as, say, Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, their tortured, tumultuous sound was no doubt impacted by his time here in NYC.DSC05906

The last (and only previous) time I've heard the 9th live was in 2005, when the CSO played it at Carnegie with Daniel Barenboim. But, this symphony has haunted me for well over a decade, thanks to Leonard Bernstein's live recording with the Royal Concertgebouw. All sorts of meaning have been ascribed to this epic 90 minute work: a foretelling of Mahler's own death, a mourning for the death of his daughter, a valedictory for the romantic age, etc. But Mahler never revealed a program of his own, saying only that it was "a very satisfactory addition to my little family."

Sometimes, it's best to just sit and listen. From my seat in the 15th row of Avery Fisher, the music was completely overwhelming, unfolding in convulsive waves over the packed house. (No mean feat given the hall's notoriously flat acoustics.) Gergiev, who conducted without a baton, somehow managed to be both autocratic and affable, his gray, thinning hair matted down with sweat. Gergiev had a score in front of him, but only looked at it occasionally.DSC04841Throughout the 9th, Mahler lays waste to bright, cheerful scenes of youth, without mercy. The first movement begins quietly, with strings and horns recalling a pastoral landscape that quickly darkens with oncoming storm clouds of brass and percussion. The second movement starts as a traditional Austrian dance - the Ländler - before disintegrating into a grotesque dance of death, simultaneously horrifying and exciting. The third, a "Rondo-Burleske," hurtles along like a speed train out of control, sounding almost Shostakovich-like with its fluttering winds and strings until it finally ends with a crackling snap of brass and percussion.

But, the real ass-kicker is the final movement: a wrenching, heartfelt Adagio that extends for nearly half-an-hour. Gergiev grunted and groaned his way through the irrepressibly sad music that starts the movement, exhorting the LSO strings to dig deeper than they possibly ever had. This music has been known to cause conductors to lose self-control before: Lenny once came offstage after conducting the 9th with the NY Phil, completely in tears. "I have no idea what just happened out there," he said. "I don't remember any of it." (Mahler told Bruno Walter that he "wrote away at it blindly," forgetting the entire first movement not long after he composed it.)DSC05885

About 10 minutes in, the music really starts to work on you, making you lose all sense of time and awareness. The movement swells and fades, filled with the overwought emotion of a man engaged in a desperate struggle he knows he won't win. 

Finally, in the final five minutes the struggle subsides, yielding to a quiet, transcendent passage that is unlike anything that has been written before or sense: filled with utter beauty and mystery as it slowly, gently fades away in peace. It is the music we should all want to hear at the end of our lives.

Indeed, the mere act of hearing this music - peformed with astonishing grace and ability by one of the world's great orchestras and conductors - is its own reason to live. At the very least, it's a helluva good reason to schlep from Brooklyn on a Sunday.DSC04850

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