Monday, March 19, 2012

MAHLER: "And.One.Thing.More..."

 In many ways, Mahler’s music is an acquired taste. It doesn’t have the instant appeal of Beethoven’s, Mozart’s or Tchaikovsky’s music.  For one thing, his symphonies  go on longer than most people are willing to tolerate spending time listening to. He is the equivalent of Steve Jobs saying, “And one thing more” except that, in Mahler’s case, he reveals one thing more, and another, and another, till you hear yourself saying “No more!” Literarily, his equivalent would be Marcel  Proust who remembered things in his past after a single bite of a French muffin, and wrote about it ad infinitum.
     For people who don’t have the time and inclination to spend an hour or two on musical ideas being launched, munched  and picked over  (and over again), Mahler’s name is anathema. To those who like their music extended like a hundred-day cruise, Mahler is God.
     I started out being a Mahler hater. I ended up, eventually, as a Mahler lover. Mahler, it turned out for me, especially in his quieter moments, aided in relaxation, reflection and enhanced the eventual act of slumber.
    There is always something to discover in Mahler’s extended symphonies: some outrageous leap of harmony, some lambent adagio that induced a fugal state you did not want to emerge from, some particularly thrilling combination of instruments that tells you the man knew his oboes  from his kettledrums.
    Recently,  I took a painful thirteen-hour bus journey  from El Paso to Los Angeles to listen to the Simon Bolivar Orchestra perform under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel. The orchestra was going to play two particular favorite Mahler symphonies of mine: the # 3 and the # 5. I knew the #5 from the use of its Adagietto in Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice”. I bought a  multi-CD recording  of the #3 by the New York Symphony under Leonard Bernstein (back when buying CD's was still fashionable) and was instantly floored by its vigorous and  powerful brass opening. The 3rd is also the longest Mahler symphony. In fact, it is the longest symphony performed today, period. How does an hour and a forty minutes grab ya? During its performance at the Disney Hall, no bathroom breaks were allowed. You had to do your necessary visits before Maestro Dudamel's downbeat.
    Eventually I gained possession of recordings of all of Mahler’s symphonies, but these were the two I listened to the most and were (and still are) in my essential iPod list.
  The only other time I heard a Mahler symphony live was at an opening concert at the Hollywood Bowl back in the early '90's. I think it was the symphony # 7.
   The Hollywood Bowl was not the ideal place to listen to Mahler because there was too much ambient noise from the wind and the trees and the occasional distant helicopter spotlighting a car chase. Besides, I was trying to listen to music while enjoying a glass of wine and a leg of roast chicken, so Mahler took definite second place to the Hollywood Bowl experience. The Hollywood Bowl is basically a place where people have a picnic and  then try to pay attention to what's going on onstage. Sometimes, it's really hard to concentrate, because the weather is so beautiful in LA in the summer.
   That was then. This time,  within the enclosed, acoustically perfect  precincts of the Walt Disney Hall, I could hear every triangle, every blast of the horns, every exhalation of the soprano and chorus. I listened and was overwhelmed by the experience of listening to a top-class orchestra perform  Mahler live, and with great gusto and feeling. I don't know how these South American musicians have played these symphonies, but they all seemed on fire the nights I heard them play. Moreover, Dudamel conducted sans score. It was a sight to behold. And there was no glass of wine and leg of roast chicken to distract me.
     I could have stayed on for another week and listened to the final offering of this cycle of performances of all of Mahler’s symphonies:  Symphony No. 8 aka  “Symphony of a Thousand”, featuring the combined orchestras of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. Together with a massed choir, the  number of musicians indeed eventually numbered a thousand. However, I decided that two Mahler symphonies in one week were enough. I can always enjoy the rest of his symphonies in my own time and at my leisure via my iPod. Besides, that concert was all sold out. The only other chance I would have of listening to it was in Caracas, Venezuela, where  Dudamel was going to conduct the whole cycle of Mahler symphonies again. I have been to Venezuela, specifically its sad cruise ship terminal in the slummy town of La Guaira. I took a pass.
      I shall always wonder how Mahler could have written so many symphonies at such length and with such mastery of orchestration with the single-minded conviction that his time will come. For a time he was out of fashion, vilified for what some critics called  his musical “elephantiasis”. Now, he is worshiped by many a music cognoscenti as the epitome of the romantic, quasi-Wagnerian  composer  with so much to say who dared to say it.
      All. Of. It.
Here's the beginning of Mahler's Symphony #3, Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, Conducted by Gustavo Dudamel


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