BOSTON– I have enjoyed the pleasure and privilege of accompanying conductor Benjamin Zander and his youth orchestras on five different tours over the last dozen years, and each of them has been substantially different from the others.
For one thing, each season has brought many new players, although from year to year there is also some overlapping of personnel. Over the years the repertory has been wide-ranging and the soloists have included international celebrities as well as more-than- promising youngsters, one of whom went on to win the Tchaikovsky Competition, piano division. Mahler has been the most constant and consistent composer - Zander took the Symphony No. 1 to China (in some cities it was having its local premiere, and the Chinese Mahler Society showed up in full force, more than a dozen people!), the Symphony No. 2 to the Netherlands, and the Ninth, in two different European tours.
The contexts were also different. Last year’s tour to South America was about making personal connections – in nearly every city in Peru, Argentina and Uruguay, the orchestra rehearsed or performed with one or more local youth orchestras, most of them outgrowths from the El Sistema program developed in Venezuela. An additional interesting aspect was the way it revealed Zander in experimental mode. He had played Cesar Franck’s symphony as a young cellist in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, but he hadn’t conducted it very often, if at all – all the way through the rehearsals and concerts he was trying different approaches until he found his own way. The process was fascinating to follow.
Many aspects of this European tour were familiar – and remain praiseworthy. Too often youth orchestras spend months of rehearsal in order to play a single concert, over and out, and just for a partisan audience of family and friends, although over decades, Zander has built his own audience in Boston, people who will go to anything he does because they want to know what he’s up to. The tours bring a chance to perform the same works several times, but in different halls. This is how ensembles improve, interpretations grow, and individuals learn more about the music, about performing, and about themselves.
Touring also brings the chance for the young players to get to know each other better and on a more personal level. The weekly rehearsals in the Benjamin Franklin Institute provide limited opportunity for socializing – just over snacks at break time. And what happens then is what Zander calls tribalism – the players tend to fall into groups, people who already know each other through school, people who play the same instrument, or enjoy various ethnic or religious connections, or simply fall into the same age category. One stack of pizza boxes can make the whole world kin – if the world makes an effort, and Zander urges it to. For the pre-tour meeting he breaks up groups, asks people in the back to sit up front. And during the tour he urges each person to speak to someone he or she doesn’t know every day – this builds community, and communities create better performances.
In other respects, this European tour developed its own identity. Zander was conducting a keystone work of his own repertory, Mahler’s 9th Symphony, which he has been programming for 40 years. He has also recorded it twice, first in 1996 with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and last season, with the current BPYO. It would be a mistake to say that his interpretation is fixed and unchanging, because he is always open to suggestion, but he also has firm convictions about the piece and a lot of accumulated experience in dealing with the knotty problems it poses. The BPYO performed the work eight times in eight different concert halls, at least six of them among the best in Europe and even the world. Zander and the orchestra rehearsed the work for five months or so last fall and winter before playing (and recording) it in Symphony Hall. In May and June there were at least 24 hours of additional rehearsals, not to mention briefer rehearsals in all but one of the halls.
Zander preceded the Mahler with two shorter pieces composed in the same timeframe, from before World War I until just after, George Butterworth’s “The Banks of Green Willow” and Ravel’s La Valse, both of them well played but dwarfed by the Mahler 9th, even Ravel’s apocalypse in ¾ time.
“It is the best thing I have ever done,” Mahler said about his previous symphony, No. 8. He composed it in 1906 and when he conducted the world premiere four years later in 1910 it enjoyed the greatest success of any work of his presented during his lifetime. By the time of the belated premiere of the Eighth Mahler had composed Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony. He had also drafted, in short score, the Symphony No. 10, but completed the full orchestration of only part of it before he died.
In contrast to his praise for the Eighth Symphony, Mahler’s recorded remarks on the Ninth are restrained. “As far as I know it, the work is a nice addition to my small family [of previous symphonies]. . . The symphony says something I have had on the tip of my tongue for the longest time.”
“Nice” is not a word anyone but the composer would dare to apply to the Ninth.
The premiere took place in 1912, just over a year and one month after Mahler’s death, it was reviewed responsibly and seriously, but also with some puzzlement – in Austria alone there were 17 reviews. Mahler might not have been pleased by a comparison to Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony which he had conducted in New York, although he did not admire it, thinking it too overt. Nevertheless there are certain similarities of form, including a brilliant third movement followed by a very slow and solemn finale.
An autobiographical element is clearly present, so the symphony was widely and naturally viewed as dominated by thoughts of death and as a farewell to life. This is explicitly spelled out in the score – one section in the first movement is marked “Like a solemn funeral procession.” In Ken Russell’s famous/notorious 1974 film biography of Mahler, there is a curious episode with a stranger on a train who is identified only as a Moravian “princess.” She doesn’t look the part – the actress was a gifted jazz singer (and remains one today); perhaps in the symbolism of the film she represents an angel of death. In any case, she starts to taunt Mahler about his Ninth Symphony, which she could not possibly have heard because nobody had while Mahler was alive. But she stares Mahler down because she knows this symphony is about “Death the pitiless enemy, death the joker, and even death the lover.”
Most of the early critics who were not Moravian princesses would not have enjoyed access to Mahler’s original manuscript which contains some additional personal remarks not printed in the score – “O youth lost! O love vanished” and “Farewell, farewell.” (At this point, the music actually quotes the middle movement of Beethoven’s “Farewell” Sonata for piano, Op 81a.)
But self-pity is not what the symphony is about. The account of the symphony by a later composer Alban Berg is famous. Berg was 25 years younger than Mahler, but he had attended the premiere of the symphony and later wrote, “The first movement is the most wonderful music Mahler wrote. It is the expression of remarkable love for this earth, the longing to live upon it in peace, to enjoy nature to its greatest depths before death enters. Because death does come, inexorably . . .”
Nevertheless it would be a mistake to call this a tragic work. It did come from a complicated period of Maher’s life; his marriage was unravelling, for example, and a young daughter he adored had died. He had been diagnosed with a heart condition and advised by his physician to give up the strenuous exercise that he adored (hiking, swimming, etc.); he chafed at that, resented it. His departure from his prestigious post as director of the Vienna State Opera was stormy, and he was certainly the victim of Viennese anti-Semitism. But it is difficult to assume he was a profoundly unhappy person. He was relieved to be out of the poisonous musical and extramusical politics in Vienna and happy at the success he had won at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. His last letters indicate he was still planning a fulfilling season he would not live to conduct and he was looking forward to his first national tour in the United States. And he had made substantial progress on a Tenth Symphony which demonstrates that the Ninth does not represent the close of his career – No. 10 has tragic episodes, but much of it is exuberant music, positive in mood.
Like Leonard Bernstein or Pierre Boulez, Mahler longed to be free of conducting so that he could compose full time. Unlike Boulez or Bernstein, he meant what he said – during each summer he retreated from his vacation homes to a composing hut from which new symphonies emerged; didn’t compose during the winter season, but he did a lot of the cleanup work on the manuscripts, and at every point he knew for sure he was composing as fruitfully as he ever did. And he also realized he was not composing for the audiences of his own time and place; it was music for the future, and he was totally convinced of its quality. And after the huge success of the premiere of the Eighth Symphony he may have believed that audiences were finally beginning to come around.
Despite a world war, the Ninth Symphony was performed with some frequency in Europe during its early years. It didn’t come to America until much later; in 1931 Serge Koussevitzky conducted the U.S. premiere in Symphony Hall. Always persistent in the cause of important recent works, over the course of the next decade Koussevitzky led it on a dozen occasions, and on three others, programmed the final adagio as a stand-alone piece.
Within that same decade the Ninth disappeared from European concert programs because of Nazi opposition to music composed by Jews. Bruno Walter had conducted the first recording of the work in 1938, just a few days before the Nazi annexation of Austria and the subsequent dispersal of the Vienna Philharmonic. The next commercial recordings, there were two of them, came in the 1950s. Throughout the 1960s there were 17 and the total today is well over 100; the development of high fidelity recording created a new public for Mahler, and so did the new generations of celebrity conductors. Some who developed a special reputation in Mahler have recorded the Ninth repeatedly – Bernard Haitink is probably the champion with five; there are four apiece by Claudio Abbado and Bernstein. Of course this does not include a much larger number of performances recorded from broadcasts that circulate among collectors – there are several led by Klaus Tennstedt, for example, and the Bernstein totals must be impressive – in 1985 he took it on tour to Japan where the Israel Philharmonic played it repeatedly, one of those concerts was televised as well.
The Ninth is now a repertory work; repetition has made it more familiar without dissolving its difficulties and challenges. Zander has conducted it in Europe and Asia as well as in North and South America. He is noted for his eloquence as a platform speaker, and at each of the 8 performances of the Ninth during the European tour he had some useful and helpful things to say. He is particularly strong on his analysis of the first movement, which he says alternately presents two different languages of music, one that is harmonious and resolved, one that is dissonant, tense and unresolved. From this it is just a step to observe, as Zander does, that it is poised between nostalgia for the beliefs and explorations of the 19th century and anticipation of musical events, disruptions and dissonances that hadn’t definitively occurred yet but which were inevitable. The music moves from five episodes or oases of calm into five increasingly disruptive climaxes and in the last of them Death himself appears – although he does not have the last word.
In the program essay which Zander wrote for his 1994 recording, Zander analyzes a big surprise in this movement. “. . .[T]he two constrasting ‘themes’ that encapsulate the two opposed types of music in this movement . . . are in fact identical. They represent two aspects of the same dilemma – despair is an inevitable accompaniment of hope and love – and they are finally resolved in the horn melody, which contains elements of each – and takes us beyond both into a sublime reconciliation, in a glimpse of bliss at the very end of the movement.”
It is tempting, now, to proceed to comparisons among the eight tour performances, but the problem is that any basis of comparison is uncertain and unstable. One could whip out a stopwatch and compare timings, which is what some Mahler fanatics do, but timings which are close to each other don’t tell you anything, and larger spreads (Bernstein twice as long as Bruno Walter in the finale of Mahler 9) only define extremes. Timings are related to acoustics most of all, but also to the technical level of the players; the chemistry among conductor, players and audience; the temperature and the weather outside, not to mention the inner weather of the performers.
Acoustics are probably the critical factor, and two of the tour venues were simply unsuitable for a large orchestra and the Mahler Ninth – the church in Jihlava, the town where Mahler grew up, and the Mozarteum in Salzburg. It was nevertheless moving to hear the symphony in a church behind which once stood the military barracks; the playing of the band there haunted Mahler for the rest of his life. The stage in the Mozarteum was too small to seat the full BPYO, and several players volunteered to drop out; the room was a beautiful space, but listening to this music in there was like being on the wrong end of a battering ram.
At an opposite extreme, I found the spacious and beautiful new Bartok Hall in Budapest tended to dwarf the music. The others are all interesting, in different ways, and it was also rewarding to hear how quickly the young players adapted to the different acoustics. The sound in the Rudolfinum in Prague is exceptionally but not overwhelmingly lush. But it does require unusual refinement and discipline from the players. And in a meeting beforehand David St. George, Zander’s musical advisor, spoke eloquently to the players about how rehearsing and performing in that building helped create the characteristic and inimitable attack and sound of one of the world’s greatest orchestras, the Czech Philharmonic. The BPYO had to hold back a bit from its own frontal attack, but there was nothing held back emotionally – the players caught on quickly and played within the acoustic.
The same interplay between resident orchestra and acoustics was evident in two of the other halls, the Musikverein and the Vienna Philharmonic in Vienna, and the Concertgebouw and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. At least one of the BPYO players wrote to Zander about how for her the Musikverein performance was the highlight of the tour – and indeed a highlight of her life. One could understand why she felt this way – it is impossible to sit in the Musikverein without feeling the presence and liberating weight of history and tradition. This is where Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was premiered, and where the first recording was made just a few days before the Nazis annexed Austria and the Jewish members of the Philharmonic fled, or tried to flee, some of them too late. Those implacable rows of bare-breasted statues around the hall have witnessed and heard a lot.
At the performance that night, I could see and hear how invested the orchestra was in playing this music and in this place, but I had made a mistake. I believe the Symphony Hall acoustics are most favorable when experienced from the first balcony. Although I have been in the Musikverein many times, I had never sat in the balcony before, and wondered if the sound were superior there too. But I was surrounded by too many people who did not seem particularly interested in or responsive to the music and the performance and that was distracting even before the cellphones chimed in and people started noisily dropping heavy objects. For me, it was difficult to enter into Mahler’s world and remain there – a response that was probably unfair to Zander, the orchestra and Mahler, even though the one review of the concert I saw spent more of its limited space on criticizing the audience than on describing the performance.
The concert had not sold well and there were many competing musical events – we were told that there were at least a dozen of them that same evening. The musicians, armed with flyers advertising reduced ticket prices, spread throughout the downtown area and did an admirable job of recruiting an audience, but not everyone in the audience was aware of what he or she was getting into, or that Mahler’s Ninth lasts an hour and a half.
The art of reviewing seems to be in decline in Vienna and Amsterdam, the only two places where reviews appeared – the Vienna one did say more about the behavior of the audience than the content of the concert; Amsterdam was condescending, although it pointed with pride to Zander’s Dutch heritage. Only in England now can audiences count on informed – and informative – criticism.
(The night before there was a gala at the Vienna State Opera marking the 48th anniversary of the debut there by the great Czech coloratura soprano Edita Gruberova, who is now in her early 70s; this was her farewell to the company where she sang 100 of her 200 career performances of the role of Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. She is still scheduled for a demanding season of operas and concerts elsewhere next year. I had toyed with trying to attend, but the tickets were $200. What I didn’t know is that the State Opera had set up outdoor screens so I could have experienced it for free, as some players and tour staff did.)
I loved the BPYO performance in Pecs, in the new Kodaly Hall, which is regarded as one of the two best concert halls in Hungary. The interior is all wood, rosewood in fact, with no visible plaster at all; it was like being inside a musical instrument. The hall is a bit disorienting – there are no right angles, and everything looks a bit off-kilter. But the sound is superb and it seemed to me this was a perfect spot to hear a piece that is deliberately off-kilter in its middle movements – even though it was played with rare self-assurance.
The Pecs rehearsal drew the most distinguished musical visitor to the tour, Péter Eötvös. The Hungarian musician is both a wonderful composer of adventurous operas that the public wants to see and hear (Three Sisters and Angels in America) and a superb conductor of new music (and older music too). I was able to speak to him only briefly and didn’t have the nerve to ask him what he thought about the rehearsal, but it was a great honor to meet him in person.
Finally the performance in the Concertgebouw developed to the point that I could experience what the young orchestra member had felt in the Musikverein. It wasn’t a perfect performance. But Mahler’s goal is not about perfection – it is about striving for perfection. There were of course extramusical reasons for experiencing this musical event in a special way – Mahler’s close relationship with the Amsterdam orchestra and its music director, Willem Mengelberg, Mengelberg’s half-century of stubborn advocacy for Mahler’s music and the warm response of the Dutch public to it. In a hallway upstairs there is a famous bust of Mahler by his sculptor-daughter Anna; in the stairwell down to the performers’ dressing rooms and cafeteria there is a photocollage, and in it Mahler stands next to Ella Fitzgerald.
And in a way this final performance by this orchestra was the culmination of an effort stretching across 10 months of rehearsal and performance and the thrilling experience of seeing some of the landscapes and interiors of Mahler’s life. The tour visited some of the cities and even some of the venues where Mahler worked; it paused at his birthplace, where he would certainly have been delighted at the games children were playing during a festival on the lawns leading up to the Mahler inn/store during a festival. In the residence itself there is now a small concert room with a piano. Zander sounded D-A-D-A and the orchestra became a chorus intoning the D-minor version of the canonic children’s song “Frere Jacques” that Mahler used in the slow movement of his Symphony No. 1. A few members of the group were able to visit the modest dwelling in Jihlava where Mahler lived until he was a teenager; he house is now a small museum honoring the town’s most famous resident, and there was a special exhibit upstairs devoted to Mahler’s widow. The wine cellar still looks very much the way it must have more than a century ago – in Ken Russell’s Mahler film, there is a scene that is set there and the resemblance is so exact it could have been filmed there, although it wasn’t.
A tour guide in Vienna addressed me as Herr Hanslick after someone had told her of my former profession as a newspaper critic – Hanslick was the notoriously stern music journalist satirized by Wagner in the character of the Nuremberg pedant, Beckmesser, in Die Meistersinger Later she remarked on how curious it was that Vienna has museums honoring Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. But there is not really a public museum for Mahler, although the Vienna State Opera apparently maintains his former office/dressing room as a small museum. She did not mention the reason for this relative neglect – anti-Semitism.
Others in the BPYO made their way to pay homage at Mahler’s grave – I had been there before, so remained in the hotel to write blog. Some were surprised to find nearby the grave of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Mahler’s wife from her second marriage – Manon’s early death led to the composition of Alban Berg’s sublime Violin Concerto which he dedicated “to the memory of an angel.’’.
So by the time of the last performances, the BPYO had become as immersed in Mahler’s worlds as anyone could expect in a two-week tour; one rehearsal proved the orchestra could play the first five minutes or so of the symphony from memory, and every busload had groups of young people who could sing longer stretches of the music – it had become part of their interior lives.
Zander did on several occasions remark on how astonished Mahler would be to hear performances of some of his most difficult and challenging music performed at this level by a youth orchestra. That is no doubt true – the youth orchestra movement scarcely existed in Mahler’s day. But it is not entirely true – Zander has led more than one youth orchestra in this symphony and a glance at the discography reveals that four of the recorded performances of the Ninth Symphony were by youth orchestras, one by Zander and the BPYO, of course, one by the European Community Youth Orchestra led by Bernard Haitink, and two by the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, one led by its then associate conductor, James Judd, and one led by its founding music director Claudio Abbado.
I recently watched and listened to the Abbado performance, the DVD of which was taped in the Saint Cecilia auditorium in Rome, Italy; it became clear to me that the best way to describe Zander’s performance(s) would be to compare them to this one of Abbado’s. The two conductors deliver strongly contrasted interpretations; at this level they are not better than each other, only different from each other. Each exhibits superb qualities that the other lacks; each establishes a valid and compelling view of the work. For me, Zander may enjoy an unfair advantage because I had the unfair advantage of attending so many rehearsals – I know quite specifically what he was after and how he achieved it; this I must infer from Abbado.
Of course comparisons are odious, as Shakespeare said, and in some respects they are inappropriate in this instance. The oldest players in the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra are 26; no one in the BPYO is 26 yet. The youngest players in the BPYO are only 12, and the camera in Rome discloses no young people of that age. As far as I can tell from the ensemble’s website, the Mahler Youth Orchestra assembles twice a year to rehearse programs for tours that follow; one reason for the orchestra’s existence is that Abbado wanted to create an ensemble that would draw players not only from the European Union but from the countries that were at that time behind the iron curtain. It is also difficult to know from the websites of the European Union Youth Orchestra, which still exists, and the Gustav Mahler what exactly happened to lead Abbado, a founder of the earlier ensemble, to create a second orchestra, but saddening to learn that Brexit will end Britain’s involvement with the European Union orchestra.
Abbado, who directed one of the greatest Mahler performances I ever heard – the Symphony No. 2 with the BSO, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Jessye Norman and Barbara Hendricks in 1979. But this video of the Ninth Symphony opens with a shocking mistake. I could not believe my eyes when I saw that he had seated the violas on the right side of the podium with the second violins seated inside, between the first violins and the cellos. In this symphony Mahler created one of the longest and most challenging second violin parts in the repertory – 45 pages or so - and in his time the second violins would certainly have been seated opposite the first violins to create a “stereophonic” effect. Much of the sense of the symphony is established by the complete parity between the first and second violins which cannot exist if the orchestra is not seated in the old way.
Zander of course followed historic precedent, and he treated his second violin section like co-soloist with the firsts – at the close of every performance, Zander asked the second violin section to rise and accept the applause they had so richly earned.
The opening of the symphony is astonishing in both performances. Mahler assembles it from the tiniest specks of detail – first an irregular rhythm, pianissimo, in the cellos, the pitch and rhythm then reiterated by the fourth horn in a slightly louder dynamic – there is a subtle, barely perceptible touch of tone color. Leonard Bernstein was the first, but hardly the last, Mahlerian to observe that this rhythm reflects Mahler’s irregular heartbeat – virtually every subsequent program note for the symphony quotes or simply appropriates the remark. Next the harp comes in in a bell like pattern and the second horn announces a summon to order. There is a rustle of anticipation from the violas, and then the second violins voice two adjacent notes – the seed that will grow into a principal heart-easing theme of the movement. It also provides a link to the close of Mahler’s previous work, Das Lied von der Erde.
From these pregnant details Mahler develops the music that Berg praised so highly, allowing the listener to explore nature “to its greatest depths” until the opposite, forbidding music arises creating the first of five increasingly violent climaxes. But violence does not have the last word; the movement ends quietly, the brass and percussion have vanished and we hear only the woodwinds, strings, and harp.
One of the most moving tour moments for me came after a rehearsal when the players in the last two pages of music remained onstage all by themselves to work on precision of attack, balance, and intonation, I have no idea whether they did this at Zander’s request or on their own initiative; in either case this was striking evidence of devotion to the music and convictions about it.
Mahler’s contemporaries did not notice the possible notation of his heartbeat, but one of them did comment that he recognized Mahler’s “gait” in this movement. The tempo marking is “Andante commodo,” a comfortable or convenient walking speed. Mahler was known for his vigorous walk (and rock-climbing) so some conductors have pushed things along, perhaps too fast; neither Abbado nor Zander made this this mistake.
Abbado’s performance is notable for thoughtfulness, beauty of sound, finish of detail, and a sense of proportion; everybody is quite literally on the same page, working towards a common goal, and the goal is very high. Zander’s was equally detailed but less orderly, or maybe less obsessed with order.
Mahler was perhaps the greatest conductor of his era, and he knew everything there is to know about orchestral players and what holds their interest. Throughout his composing career, he turned over and over again to instruments that rarely have prominent solos – from bass clarinet to piccolo (actually every piccolo solo is prominent!), from contrabassoon to flute. Virtually every instrument has a solo in the Ninth Symphony and the percussion parts are interesting too; often there are unusual duets (flute and horn, for example) or various chamber-music ensembles. All this in addition to memorable solos for instruments that often have them – the concertmaster, for example, or the cello, the oboe, or the bassoon. There are several solos for the concertmaster in the Ninth, one of which may derive from an unfamiliar waltz by Johann Strauss, Jr., Freuet euch das Leben. It is impossible to know now whether this was a conscious decision or the result of a subconscious memory, or simply a coincidence. But the title is appropriate to the context – “Enjoy Life!”
Zander has developed various exercises to develop the independence of every single player. The first rehearsal in Europe took place in the dining room of the BPYO’s hotel in Berlin – a wide, narrow rectangular space where players seated across the room from each other couldn’t possibly hear each other, let alone respond. So Zander asked them to move around the space and sit, or stand, next to a player of a different instrument. The late John Oliver used to do this with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, putting a bass next to a soprano, a tenor next to an alto. It was at this same rehearsal that Zander asked the players to put their music folders on the floor and play the opening of the symphony from memory – which they could do.
What the musicians’ union might do if Zander attempted to do this with professional players is unclear, but the union certainly wouldn’t like another of Zander’s intentional upheavals. He remarked that in Porsche automobiles, the engine is in the rear; “that’s where the power comes from.” Then he added that in an orchestra that is playing Mahler, the last stand of players is full as important as the first. And to prove his point, he asked the first stand of all the string sections to exchange places with the last stand. This was wonderful for morale as it made, and proved, a point.
(I do remember being astonished to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s legendary concertmaster Joseph Silverstein seated at the back of the second violin section. He was officially on vacation that week, but he had a reason to do what he did – the debut concert of guest conductor Kurt Masur had created quite a stir, and Silverstein wanted to see and hear for himself what it was all about.)
Zander likes to say that he doesn’t want to send anyone home for bad behavior, ever – and he has done so on only one previous tour, last year, South America. His reason, he tells the young players, is that he needs every single one of them. So does Mahler.
One major characteristic of a composer’s scores is how often he has different solo instruments or different sections of the orchestra playing at different dynamic levels simultaneously. The intent may appear self-contradictory, and of course the default position of most orchestral players is to go along with whoever, or what section, is playing the loudest at any given moment. But the effect of doing what Mahler asks for is to push the sonority into three dimensions because this introduces perspective into the sound, an effect far more complex that merely melody versus accompaniment. Zander was repeatedly insistent on this point; he never wanted anything smoothed out.
In his 20 year-old program note, Zander offered his defense of this. “With often as many as ten or eleven different voices to be heard at once, and with Mahler’s painstakingly precise indications of phrasing and dynamics for each voice, often different than those for all the other voices, the Ninth makes extraordinary demands on even the ablest orchestral players . . . [they] must be encouraged not to compromise the sharp oppositions, not to minimize the strangeness, even the ugliness Mahler has written into his score. . . The ideal orchestra for the work would be one composed entirely of great individualists, each with the courage to play exactly what he is given, regardless of what the others are doing. Each would then fulfill his role within the common tempo and rhythmic framework provided by the conductor . . .”
This may be the moment to salute again the great individualists who led the sections in the Mahler; some of them alternated with other players in the rest of the program. The concertmaster was Mitusru Yonezaki, who has played in the orchestra since she was a child; last season she commuted weekly from the Juilliard School in New York. Abigail Hong was the principal second violin, Dominick Douglas is the principal viola, Annette Jakovcic, the principal cello, Harrison Klein, the principal bass. Olivia Iverson was the piccolo, Carlos Aguilar, the flute, Ryoei (Leo) Kawai, the oboe, Cheyanna Duran, English horn, Diego Bacigalupe, the E-flat clarinet, Jason Russo, clarinet, Matthew Gellar, bass clarinet, Kai Rocke, bassoon, Ryan Turano, contrabassoon. Elmer Churampi, bound for the Dallas Symphony, was the principal trumpet, Joseph Cradler, headed for the Marine Band was the principal horn, Robyn Smith, principal trombone, Changwon Park, the bass trombone, and Frank John, the tuba. Neil McNulty was on the tympani, and Arilyn Mitchell, the harp.
Nearly all these people had solo moments – Cradler probably the longest and most exposed part; Jakovcic had only eight solo notes but she made them seem like a poignantly personal blessing, a grateful acceptance, from Mahler. Mahler also pulls solos out from within the section – Maria D’Ambrosio was memorable in the second horn part at the opening of the symphony; Reed Puleo played the tubular chimes in a crucial measure; and Mattijs van Maaren provided a hair-raising crescendo over a climactic pair of cymbal crashes. Nor should we forget the players from the middle and the back of the sections, individuals and individualists all of them – and a fair measure of the Porsche power comes from them.
A blogger is in a special position – he is not just looking on but can talk to the people who want to talk to him. I didn’t get to meet everybody, even all of the people on Bus 3, but the ones I met did provide an intriguing match for their playing, especially the majority who are comfortable revealing thoughts and feelings and sensitivities through music that they might otherwise go out of their way to conceal.
For the middle two movements of the Ninth, Mahler wanted to, and needed to, provide the greatest possible contrast. The second movement alternates a Laendler with a waltz – the time signature is the same, but the music is quite different, and each has its own tempo. The composer’s direction is to play “in a comfortable Laendler tempo” - comfortable again – but he adds “somewhat clumsy and very coarse.” This not a direction Abbado is temperamentally equipped to follow, but Zander urged his musicians to play “like country fiddlers,” and that’s what they did. One motif is a little rising five note scale – Zander had them hesitate for a split second before playing the top note, a delicious effect like a delayed beat in a Viennese waltz or a Polish mazurka.
For most of the third movement, which Mahler called a Rondo-Burlesque, asking for a “very insolent performance,” I found it easier to hear and therefore to follow the Abbado performance. The music is Mahler’s most advanced demonstration of contrapuntal competence. He jokingly dedicated this movement to his “brothers in Apollo,” his contemporaries among composers, some of whom occasionally criticized him for shirking the disciplines and responsibilities of counterpoint.
In fact, Mahler was almost obsessed by counterpoint, especially in his last years. He owned the famous 46-volume edition of the complete works of Bach that was completed in 1899, and for his New York orchestra he even made his own suite out of individual movements from various Bach suites; he studied the printed volumes of Bach assiduously. The Rondo-Burlesque doesn’t sound much like Bach and we can’t imagine Bach requiring insolence from his players and singers very often, but the contrapuntal writing in this movement is very dense and very difficult to balance and clarify; Abbado does that as well as anyone ever has.
But there are moments in Zander’s approach that Abbado does not rival. One of them is the famous moment of quiet towards the end, when all the activity slows down, and the solo trumpet announces what will become the theme of the last movement Adagio. This was a breathtaking moment because of the contribution of principal trumpet Elmer Churampi whose playing was full but very soft, warm but plangent, and charged with a most profound feeling of mystery and calm. Abbado’s trumpeter is highly capable, but by comparison prosaic. The end of the movement is a breathless rush to the finish line. In some of the live recordings, one by Hermann Scherchen, for example, this is merely chaotic because it is uncontrolled; Zander’s was exciting because it was controlled.
The finale is a counterweight to the first movement, almost as long as the beginning, but with far fewer notes stretched across the time span. There is a melody – Zander and others compare it to the beloved 19th century Anglican funeral hymn tune “Abide With Me,” although I can’t imagine where Mahler would ever have heard it, except possibly in church in America – but the main melodic gesture is a turn, where adjacent notes curl around, or embrace, a primary tone in the middle. This is an old device, familiar especially in Baroque music, where it was used to protract and prolong the fast-disappearing vibrations of the harpsichord. In the nineteenth century, Wagner, in particular, had revived this in his vocal writing, using it to propel the music to the next note rather than prolonging one that has already sounded.
There are two ways of dealing with this gesture in the Mahler Ninth, where it occurs more than 100 times, sometimes simultaneously in different registers and at different speeds. One is Abbado’s choice, which is to use it to propel the music into the next pitch or idea or rhythmic grouping; the other is Zander’s which is to make it expressive in and of itself, usually through rubato, stealing time and then making it up. Both approaches are equally valid, and they are not mutually exclusive – one can hear each of them making exceptions to the “rule” they have established. And both performances are extremely effective – and affecting. It is impossible to listen to this music without experiencing profound emotion, feelings of love and loss but also acceptance, even gratitude, and a peace that passes understanding.
The last pages of the symphony reverse the procedure of the first pages – the complexities vanish. The winds and the brass and the percussion drop out, and only the strings are left, and they are playing with mutes. This is exceptionally important and exceptionally difficult to coordinate. When Sir John Barbirolli made his great recording of the Ninth with the Berlin Philharmonic, he insisted that the orchestra begin by recording the last movement, and especially the end of the last movement. “The orchestra has to know what it is aiming for,” he explained.
Zander took the precaution of handing out the full orchestral score to the last page to everyone who would play it; “that is the only way the players can do it,” he said, “they have to know what everyone else is doing and where and how they fit in.”
The sound dies away, and there are beats of silence, and finally the music sinks below the horizon of audibility; the harmony is at last resolved. There is nothing left to say or to hear but everything to feel.
Both Zander and Abbado try in different ways to prolong the silence; no one could want a premature burst of applause or cries of “bravo!” Because Abbado is being filmed, the house lights have gradually gone down so the audience is sitting in the dark. The danger is to prolong the silence for too long: at that point the audience may start checking their watches or phones rather than remaining in a meditative and reverential silence. From the auditorium one could sometimes see that happening – but of course neither Abbado nor Zander could because their backs were to the public.
Of course a tour of this size – 130 people headed in many directions, large instruments, bulky suitcases, concert attire, multiple busses, a train and several airlines - is an almost impossible thing to manage and control. Zander himself was almost omnipresent even when he wasn’t on the podium or hopping tables in a restaurant – every player’s trip is completely subsidized, so with transportation costs, hotels, meals, instrument rentals, fees for the halls and all the rest of it this tour cost nearly a million dollars. It would not have happened, could not have happened, without Zander’s energy, enthusiasm, morale-building and fundraising fearlessness. If you couldn’t find him, it was usually because he was off giving a speech or raising money. He likes to reverse the usual paradigm – he has the grand vision first, and then he sets about raising money to make it a reality.
He had able assistance from a professional orchestra tour management, and the tireless efforts from BPYO staff, particularly Mark Churchill, who has collaborated with Zander on all of his youth orchestra tours to date; and indefatigable and prodigious Elisabeth Christensen, who handles all of the most exasperating detail for months on end and then once the tour is underway, often from the middle of the night until daybreak. There was also a gregarious and helpful crew of chaperones, most of them musicians and some even former members of the BPYO, a photographer/recordist, a doctor who is a cellist in the Boston Philharmonic, his wife, a nurse – all of them equipped to deal cheerfully with emergencies, sore throats, lost-and-found, worried parents, confused bus drivers, raging hormones, and oversleeping musicians.
Zander likes to think of orchestral playing as an ongoing lesson in how to live – according to the best-selling book he wrote with Rosamund Zander, The Art of Possibility, every experience can be an ongoing lesson; Zander likes to quote “Roz” as saying, “At any given moment, possibility is only one sentence away.”
This belief is an underpinning for the BPYO and it is possible to feel that Mahler’s music, which embraces opposites at every level, does something comparable. It is not an accident that the tour’s red t-shirt has a motto on it, “Shaping Future Leaders Through Music.” Zander has unquestionably created an orchestra based on the possibility that young people with strong and diverse personalities can respond to what Mahler requires of them, can create a community without compromising individuality. An orchestra can be a model for other communities, does demonstrate that diversity is a source of strength rather than a weakness. A community can experience problems, and even create some for themselves. But only a community can solve them.
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