VIENNA - Two months ago, in a rehearsal in the Benjamin Franklin Institute in the South End, conductor Benjamin Zander spoke encouraging words to the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. “Vienna hated Mahler and his music, but you and I together are going to convince them otherwise.”
In fact, Vienna has long since capitulated to Mahler, but last night’s performance by the BPYO in the city’s celebrated Musikverein was a triumph for the orchestra and for its conductor. This was the concert the young musicians had looked forward to as the summit of the tour, and their excitement was palpable before and after the concert. Needless to say, it was even more palpable during the concert itself. Afterwards Zander seemed almost giddy as he walked around greeting his players who were seated in a nearby restaurant. He was wearing a jaunty straw hat someone had given him and repeatedly exclaimed that he had never been happier.
So this was an emotional event. The Musikverein is a hallowed place for musicians and music lovers alike. Generations of great musicians have performed here, and to this day people point with veneration to the box where Brahms usually sat. Mahler was the subscription conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic for a little more than a year -the players did not love him because he was so demanding, and anti-Semitism was rampant. But he did conduct in this room, and it was in this golden hall that that Bruno Walter conducted the world premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 on June 26, 1912, just over a year after the composer’s death.
A little over a century later, now that the Ninth is a staple of the repertory, the BPYO played for a house that was nearly full with an interesting mix of lifetime music lovers, casual tourists, and a group of 50 or 60 uniformed band members and singers from a high school in Queensland, Australia.
Zander opened the program with George Butterworth’s The Banks of Greenwillow. Within Zander’s chosen terms, which are the chosen terms of most conductors who have programmed or recorded it, this was a nostalgic performance, an evocation of pastoral landscapes. It may be a stretch to say that all this was swept away by World War I because that conflict hadn’t broken out yet – and many of the landscapes have survived, although the civilization that enjoyed those landscapes in Butterworth’s day is gone. The BPYO’s eloquent performance featured lush-toned strings supporting the songs of solo winds before a final ascent of the first violin to the empyrean. Both solo and ensemble playing were superb, and Zander, who spent some of his childhood in surroundings similar to those the score describes, certainly knows how to spin an English idyll out of Butterworth’s evocative orchestration.
There are dozens of versions of the piece on YouTube, some by amateur groups and some by professional ensembles led by leading conductors like the future Sir Adrian Boult, who led the world premiere of this piece in the very first concert he ever led. I don’t think any of the YouTube performances are superior to the BPYO’s, and some of them appear as soundtracks for stunning images of the English countryside. But a chance to look at the printed score suggested another direction to me – I don’t think Butterworth was trying to create a soundtrack for some future travelogue or a television commercial.
Butterworth himself made the field recordings of the old songs he used to fashion this piece – one of them he took down in a workhouse. That means he surely knew the words – and he knew that these are not merely folk songs. Instead they are narrative ballads, that tell stories. And the stories are grim. The first of them, for example, tells of a sailor who wooed a country maid; she stole her father’s money and the couple ran away to sea, where she bore an illegitimate child. The sailor wraps up the mother and child and then drowns them in the ocean. Then he remembers how beautiful she was down by the banks of Greenwillow.
The second authentic melody in the piece is called “Green Bushes,” and it tells a tale less distressing – but distressing enough. Butterworth’s meticulously noted his score with phrase marks that correspond to where a singer-story teller would need to breathe. I would love to hear a more dramatic performance phrased in a more vocal style based on an uninterrupted legato. But I also wonder if such an orchestral performance has ever existed outside the folk-music world; among the several interesting performances by folksingers on YouTube, there’s an interesting one by the legendary British artist Shirley Collins, recorded when she was in her 80s. There is no Butterworth plush in it, but there is something simple and authentic.
Ravel insisted that La Valse is not an allegory for the end of the world as we know it – although conductors enjoy making it sound that way. The BPYO musicians say the piece is a lot more difficult to play than it appears, although this time Zander lightened it up and made it sound effortless, airborne, and sinister.
But it was the Mahler symphony, naturally, that dominated the evening; the four movements take almost 90 minutes to play and there are extreme technical challenges on every page. The outer movements can last as long as a half hour each. Mahler assembles the first movement out of tiny fragments of motives he will present, explore, expand and question. The second movement alternates and mingles three contrasting dances that unfold in completely different tempos and moods, elegant and urban vs. wild and coarse.
The third movement is a muscular contrapuntal development of many simultaneous and conflicting voices hurtling towards an end that is exciting, spectacular and unhinged as it heads for the cliff, plunging us into the full horror of the still-young 20th century.
In the finale Mahler slowly builds up and deconstructs one of the simplest musical devices, a “turn,” which is four consecutive notes moving around a central one, the first note comes in from above, the second is the principal note everything is turning around, the third dips below before returning to the fourth and principal note. In earlier music the turn both prolongs and propels a phrase; it can hurl you forward or close you in. No composer has ever used this figure more thoroughly, compulsively or eloquently than Mahler in this movement. I tried to count the number of instances, although the task is virtually impossible because it occurs in multiple voices in different tempos and rhythmical values – and all of the motives turn out to be closely related. There are more than 100 instances of the pattern as the music closes in on itself and expands outward; at the end the texture becomes sparer and sparer before the sounds dissolve in light.
Many aspects of the symphony deserve comment. The spectrum of textures that build up in three dimensions because many lines in the textures are played at different dynamic levels. The way Mahler refers to his own earlier music, repeatedly quoting the intervals that end his symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde or key phrases from his song-cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Deaths of Children). An unexpected quotation from a waltz by Johann Strauss, Jr. Freuet Euch des Lebens (Enjoy Life) in the midst of a movement usually described as tragic; a motive from Beethoven’s “Farewell” Sonata for piano; virtuoso development of techniques of Baroque music in a new and contemporary language. Heart-easing romantic-era melodies and music without clear tonality. Marches, hymns, chorales, rowdy dances. And so on, all of it intricately, evocatively, surprisingly and inevitably intertwined and interactive. Each movement is full of internal contrast, each movement spills over into the other ones – the dominating motive of the finale is first announced by the high trumpet in the third movement.
Zander has worked through this music for 40 years and has recorded it twice, and there is no detail he has failed to notice. He truly does inspire his players and even urges them to memorize their parts – and they do, to the point they can sing complicated episodes, in rich harmonies encompassing many voices as they ride a bus through the Hungarian countryside. And he has extraordinary players at his disposal this time, including virtually all the principals, including the entire second violin section headed by Abigail Hong and Greta Myatieva.
In this exceptional company one should mention concertmaster Mitsuru Yonezaki, Olivia Iverson (whose sweet-toned piccolo is usually impeccably tuned in stratospheric, sustained and perilously exposed parts), low-voiced stalwarts like trombonist Robyn Smith and Ryan Turano, (contrabassoon), Harrison Klein (bass), Carlos Aguilar, whose tone is sizable, flexible, steady and richly hued), English hornist Cheyanna Duran, Neil McNulty, whose timpani are not only sharply rhythmical but also subtle in dynamics and color).
There hasn’t been occasion to mention some of these names before, and we have already mentioned others whose solo contributions have been briefer but no less effective. Elmer Churampi leaves me stunned and breathless with the ease and soft radiance of his trumpet in the crucial third movement solos, and Joe Cradler never deviates from the highest standards in the exceptionally demanding part for principal horn. He is almost the protagonist of the symphony, but he never shows off, never rants; instead he is commanding, noble, richly human.
Often in performances by musicians this young there is a disparity between the older and more experienced players and the younger ones; this exists in the BPYO but to dwell on it would be senseless because it does not draw attention to itself. One musician put it this way for me: “sitting next to a player who is more advanced than I am makes me a better player, makes me want to practice harder, and to merge my sound with his.”
The question of interpretation is even more complicated than the question of execution. Simply put, the oldest view of what this symphony means and how it works is still the dominant one – this symphony is an exercise in autobiography. To me it is unclear how any artistic achievement could be anything else; any convincing work of art is the product of an individual’s identity, memory, experience, insight and skills; no one else could have created it. Mahler was deceptively casual in writing about it – he said that the work was something that had been on the tip of his tongue for years.
It is true that he was haunted by a medical diagnosis of a serious problem with his heart. It is true he was forced to reduce his strenuous regime of exercise. It is true that he was devastated by the death of one of his daughters.
But it is also true that he travelled widely during his last years and conducted extensively; he not only composed this symphony but led the triumphant premiere of his Eighth Symphony, his greatest public success in his lifetime; and after composing the Ninth Symphony, he composed a Tenth, in short score, completing one movement and part of another, and leaving enough detailed work for others to prepare completions, one of which has entered the repertory. He himself said his hunger for life continued to grow. To emphasize excessively the tragic aspects of this symphony is to betray it and the actual circumstances of his last years, although it is a tragedy that a course of penicillin could have averted his death– if the antibiotic had been discovered by then.
The other contrasting view is that the symphony is not about death but instead about life, and specifically about the love of life, and about gratitude for life. Great conductors from Bruno Walter on down through Leonard Bernstein have espoused the tragic point of view. Equally important conductors like Bernard Haitink believe otherwise.
There is a great more to say about this, but not now. Zander clearly believes in the autobiographical explanation for much of the symphony, and those elements are what he stresses in his remarks about the symphony during his concerts. But the phrase “gratitude for life” is his. And I believe the reason for the interest in Mahler that slowly grew over the course of the 20th century is the capaciousness of his work, the way it can express different and even conflicting points of view. Sometimes he can reconcile them, sometimes he cannot. Both conclusions are authentic.
Gratitude for life is not a subject most members of the BPYO speak about, at least in the company of their elders. But it is a quality that many of them exemplify. Before rehearsal began, for example violist Dominick Douglas stood in the box where Brahms used to sit and played phrases from one of his viola sonatas.
The acoustics of the Musikverein are celebrated throughout the world and they were achieved without the advantage of theory and scientific observation. Imitation has not produced anything comparable, and these days we are unlikely to find a new performance space adorned by 50 golden bare-breasted and zaftig statues around the walls. I had been in the auditorium on several previous occasions, but I had never sat in the balcony, so that is what I headed for, center balcony, several rows up. The sound of the BPYO was full and glorious; I could feel the energy and commitment coming from the stage. I was too far away from the platform to see much, but I heard every detail. Unfortunately I also heard a lot of extraneous noise, which grew enough through the performance to become seriously distracting, particularly as members of the audience began to drift towards the exits, usually during the quietest passages of the music.
I agree with Zander that anything that brings an inexperienced listener into the concert hall is by definition a good thing. He likes to say that all people love classical music, even if they don’t realize it yet. But it is equally true that inexperienced listeners can destroy the very qualities that experienced listeners have assembled in the concert hall to hear.
Finally, a word about the travel between Pecs, in Hungary, to Vienna, in Austria; the three buses did not travel in caravan, but independently. And our Bus 2 enjoyed a most excellent adventure. At lunchtime our driver pulled off the road in the small town of Bodajk and parked in front of a cottage that looked like a playhouse for children like Hansel and Gretel. It is a little restaurant, with a guesthouse nearby; a bin of recently plucked watermelons stood near the parking lot.
The interior had a large stove and several long tables and the room was decorated with antiquated kitchen implements. No one was expecting the unannounced arrival of 45 members of an American youth orchestra. But the young man behind the counter took this in stride, and so did the older woman, perhaps his mother, who was at work in the kitchen. The waiter said there was enough goulash for all of us and before long it came out in steaming bowls. It was delicious, and we could mop up the sauce or the gravy, whatever it was, with slices of bread; he also offered big plates of fresh French fries. While we waited, some members of the orchestra carved the melon, then they began to extract the juice and pour it into their thermoses. This was a fantastic experience, far more rewarding than some of the mass-produced “snack boxes” served elsewhere on our journeys – those sometimes included a “sandwich” featuring a thin slice of cheese enlivened by a single lettuce leaf.