Dear Orchestra – collectively and every one of you wonderful people individually,
I just got in from driving around in the car. A recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was playing on the radio. I don’t know who was doing it, but it was awful. The strings rushed a little and were slightly scrappy in all the difficult bits – not horribly, but enough to set my teeth on edge. The winds were unbalanced (did the first clarinet think he was going to be paid extra for playing really loud?). In the opening movement the first trumpet didn’t understand the difference between a prominent trumpet part, which it certainly is, and a trumpet concerto, which it isn’t. But worst of all, there was just no sense of what makes Mahler Mahler. Crescendos got louder, but weren’t urgent. The pianissimos were soft (ish) but not mysterious or uncanny. The sforzandos were sudden loud noises, without the stab of pain. And the rhythm was metronomic – counted, not felt.
So I couldn’t help but reflect back on the Mahler performance that you gave Tuesday night, as well as the one in Symphony Hall, and on the other amazing music making that happened in our action-packed two days in New York. The very first sound you made in the Mahler was amazing. I have never heard the A octaves at the beginning – that effect of a mysterious and universal sound suddenly becoming audible – more striking or more perfectly realized.
I mentioned to the players at my table at the dinner afterwards that when Ben and I were recording the Mahler 1st with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London a number of years ago, we had to record the opening section with the harmonics many times over in order to get a version that was free of unintended squeaks and squawks. Yours was perfect the first time. The panache of the scherzo was irresistibly infectious (one can understand and easily forgive the public’s applause a third of the way through). The timing of the trio, with its Viennese lilt, was utterly perfect – honestly, I can’t imagine it better – with wonderfully gauged interjections from the winds (there was an oboe moment of Jonathan Gentry that is still sounding in my ear). The third movement’s bizarre dirge was uncouth and touching in just the right proportion. I have been enthralled by Pete Walsh’s playing of the bass solo in rehearsal after rehearsal, and the magic was there again Tuesdaynight. It is possible that I have never heard anybody capture the weird, menacing, infinitely sad complexity of that moment as perfectly as Pete does – and my experience with the Mahler First live goes all the way back to 1963, when I heard Leinsdorf conduct it with the BSO in Sanders Theatre (the BSO had a Tuesday night Cambridge series when I was a kid). And in the last movement the brass covered themselves in glory (as they did at the very beginning of the piece – those offstage trumpets sounded terrific!). That you were able to pull this off after having already played The Rite is barely believable – I’m not sure that you yourselves fully appreciate how extraordinary such an achievement is.
The two nights were filled with countless triumphs, some on a large scale (like the most truly terrifying account of the Rite’s Danse sacrale I have ever heard) and some on a more intimate level. The first time I ever heard the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was in 1958 – I was eleven – Pierre Monteux conducted the BSO in a performance that was probably about as definitive as anything can be, although I couldn’t have known it then. But I remember clearly how spellbound I was by James Pappoutsakis’s playing of the flute part. I had never heard a piece that started in this way, with an unaccompanied flute, and I had never heard a piece with these amazing, gossamer textures. I was spellbound, and Debussy became that night, and has remained, one of my favorite composers. What happened for me on Tuesday night was that for the first time in all these years I recaptured that sense of wonder at the miraculous and strange beauty of the piece, thanks to Carlos Aguilar’s playing of the flute part. With his opulent and varied beauty of sound, subtle dynamics (oddly daring – just like the faun himself) and supple timing – so free and so controlled at the same time – I found myself re-falling in love with the piece, if there is such a thing.
On Monday night the Tchaikovsky Fifth was utterly amazing – Brava to Megan Shusta for her horn solo in the second movement, it just doesn’t get more beautiful than that. The opening of the piece was pure magic, with the clarinets leading, the strings subordinate, as I so often have imagined but so rarely have heard. The whole shaping of the symphony from beginning to end was perfectly judged and immensely powerful. In one of his essays T.S. Eliot once complained about the lack of “objective correlative” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – he meant that he felt that the intensity of the emotion expressed by the title character was in excess of the facts presented by the play that could underlie it. I don’t agree with Eliot, but sometimes I feel that way about Tchaik 5 – it can seem overblown and flailing, without a structure that sufficiently supports so much angst at the one end and so much exaltation at the other. I did NOT feel that way – not for a second – on Mondaynight. You – the players in the orchestra and Ben on the podium – gave an honest-to-God great performance of the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, and everybody in Carnegie Hall was damn lucky to be able to hear it. You’ve changed the way I think of this symphony.
There is so much more to be said, but I don’t want to tire you out with a further deluge of words, and there is no need for further particulars. In fact, I’m not writing to compliment you. I’m writing to thank you. All of you.
David St. George