NEA Institute Day 5: Now I understand the Mahler thing

I cried at the end of Mahler's Symphony No. 2.

I heard the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Moest in Carnegie Hall.


I'll post my review below. Remember, it's an assignment for the NEA institute I'm attending at Columbia University. I don't really know what I'm doing.

Today my fellow Fellows and I met for a writing workshop with Justin Davidson, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning music and architecture critic. He generally liked my writing and said it was clear I write for the ear, for radio. But he cautioned me about the opening lines, referring to U.S. politics. The concern is that readers expect that parallel to be drawn throughout the piece. It wasn't.

So, here's my review of the Mahler. Tomorrow I hand this over to Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times.


* * * *

Before setting off for a three-week tour of Europe, the Cleveland Orchestra set up camp in New York's Carnegie Hall. The harp glittered. The cellos gleamed. A sell-out crowd settled in for one purpose: to concentrate on the sound of one of the best orchestras in the world perform a single piece of music Mahler's Symphony No. 2.

Expectations ran high. It didn't hurt that the conductor, Franz Welser-Moest physically resembles the composer, Gustav Mahler, right down to the Austrian accent. It also didn't hurt either for audience members to note that Mahler himself conducted the U.S. premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1908.

The conductor took a clinical approach, but the Cleveland Orchestra managed to take listeners on an exhilarating journey nonetheless.

The first movement gushed forth with a burst of spray, crashing into a thunderous surge. The floor shook. Cellists dug into their instruments like kayak-ers pushing oars into the waves. Conductor Welser-Moest established a steady flow without plodding. Traditionally, after the twenty-minute-plus first movement, audience members expect a long pause. In this performance, however, hopes for silent reflection on death were dashed by a wailing siren and racking coughs.

Gustav Mahler treasured silence. For him, summer days in the 1890's meant quiet rambles in the meadows and Austrian woods. His efforts to translate outdoor life into abstract sound echo throughout his Second Symphony, especially in the second movement. It glided by in this performance with sumptuous playing from the Cleveland cellists. Flutist Joshua Smith played sweetly, with warmth. Surprisingly, the musicians played certain passages in a syrupy, sentimental way the composer desired. Until recently, the style had fallen out of fashion.

Conductor Welser-Moest swooped and dipped. At times he appeared to spin cobwebs. He coaxed phrases from the violins with economical motions. The performance he evoked might have reminded aficionados of bloodless recordings by Gilbert Kaplan. Welser-Moest's unusual long-term contract with the Cleveland Orchestra, recently extended to the 2011-12 season, implies the players have great faith in his musicianship.

About midway through the symphony, the orchestra's sound muddied. When mezzo-sporano Bernarda Fink stood up to sing, she issued a lush, plaintive solo. Fink sang superbly, with feeling. Soprano Malin Harteluis, on the other hand, not only sounded feeble, but she fidgeted. She scootched her chair, scratched her nose, and tilted her head. In a sparkle-studded dress that winked in the light, she distracted.

The final, climatic movements began with a tsunami. Low reeds and brass hinted at an ominous future. Then singers from the Westminster Symphony Choir opened their mouths and offered a quiet hymn.

What happened next was wonderful, predictable, and hard to describe without resorting to clichés. It's also the reason fans usually speak of the “Resurrection” Symphony in reverential tones.

Mahler's Symphony No. 2 is about life, meaning, and hope. But it doesn't shy from cosmic grief.

At the end of Cleveland's performance, audience members shot to their feet and shouted. A octogenarian in the tenth row lifted his cane and waved it back and forth like a flag.

Whether there is life after death didn't matter to those alive in a world of such wonders.