New York Philharmonic

(Alan Gilbert)

Chetana Nagavajara

Berlin, 17 September 2014

I have deliberately borrowed the title of the present review from my own review of a concert given at the Konzerthaus Berlin on 19 September 2012, when a young American pianist substituted for an indisposed elder Japanese pianist at short notice. The concert scheduled for 9 September 2014 at the Philharmonie Berlin was to have been conducted by Riccardo Chailly, Conductor-in-Chief of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester, in a programme devoted entirely to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. The Gewandhaus ranks as one of the top orchestras of Germany, and of Europe, once conducted by none other than Mendelssohn himself, and it was with this orchestra that Mendelssohn established a style, or rather a school, of conducting (not in the physical sense) that would go to produce a lineage of conductors, among them Arturo Toscanini, who profess faithfulness to the original work of the composer without pushing the art of interpretation to extreme subjectivity. The other alternative was the conducting method adopted by a son of Leipzig itself, namely Richard Wagner, who called for freedom in dealing with the work in the way that the conductor would deem appropriate. (I have deliberately avoided the charge of subjectivity turning itself into distortion.)

The Leipzing

(The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra)

Riccardo Chailly accidently had broken his right arm and could not possibility have made it to Berlin. It had not been explained who had the bright idea of inviting as substitute Alan Gilbert, current Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Gilbert was born in 1969 in New York; his father is an American, his mother, a Japanese, both violinists of the New York Philharmonic, although his father has retired while his mother is still professionally active. Alan Gilbert is not unknown in Europe, having won first prize at the International Competition for Musical Performance in Geneva, held appointment with the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and guest-conducted other European orchestras. But to stand in for a highly experienced maestro like Riccardo Chailly at the helm of a historic ensemble like the Gewandhaus must have proved a challenge to the young American. (He is 47, and conductors usually remain active until their eighties.)

I had a good view of the entire orchestra and the conductor from my vantage point behind the orchestra, and I could see how perfect his rapport with the musicians was. In other words, he had won them over, and they were giving their best under his guidance. The first conquest must have been made in Leipzig during the rehearsals, and at the end of the concert, the Berlin audience (in the Philharmonie with a fair number of empty seats) responded to his interpretation of Mahler with extraordinary enthusiasm – and warmth. He had brought the Leipzigers to conquer Berlin, a remarkable feat for a conductor entirely “made in USA”, because I know how snobbish the Berliners can be and how superior they often feel as the originators and protagonists of classical music. This is not jazz, mind you!

I am afraid I shall have to devote some space to describing Mahler’s Third Symphony’s physiognomy. It is a mammoth work lasting about 100 minutes, consisting of 6 movements, the first movement alone taking as much time as half an hour. This Berlin performance was given without a break, and I had sympathy with the female members of the audience having to queue up in order to get into the restroom prior to the start of the concert. (When will architects ever think of designing bigger restrooms for ladies than for gentlemen?) The symphony demands a huge orchestra: the minimum would be roughly 100 musicians. 8 horns are required, 2 sets of timpanis, as many strings as possible, and an extra post horn to be played off stage in the 3rd movement. One singer, a contralto, sings in the fourth and fifth movements, with a female chorus, plus a children’s choir. Had he lived till today, Mahler might have made use of the electric guitar as well, perhaps! It is a spectacle to look at, and the sound the symphony can make can be stupendous, In the wake of Beethoven IX, Mahler weaves in poems in the fourth and fifth movements, which he does with several other symphonies of his as well. One of the poems is drawn from the collection of folk poetry assembled by the Romantic poets, Achim vom Arnim and Clemens Brentano, called Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The simplicity of the text, which is full of the “small people’s” religious fervour, provides a contrast to Mahler’s mustering up a big army of instrumentalists and singers to frame it. A cynic would never hesitate to say, “Schubert could have created comparable (or even superior) musical and emotional impact with just one singer and a piano!” But Mahler thinks big, and the means to achieve what he wants has to be big too. Yet, one must be honest to oneself: those gigantic forces can achieve noble simplicity and serenity in a singular way; we do not have to talk about the occasional “big bangs” that are deafening. The great English music critic and Mahler specialist, Sir Neville Cardus, has warned us that in this one man Mahler, both the sublime and the ridiculous co-exist. This never happened to a composer like Brahms because he was so self-critical that he destroyed all drafts which he considered to be of inferior quality. (That was a bit much, I think.)

The New Yorker Alan Gilbert has an advantage over his other colleagues: life in the metropolis is difficult and there is no time to waste on any kind of silly nonsense. Let us face it, Mahler has become a fad. Every Tom, Dick and Harry of a conductor must have a go at Mahler, because every Mahler piece provides an opportunity for conducting acrobatics, and of course, big sounds. (What could Hollywood have done without the august example of Gustav Mahler?) Alan Gilbert’s approach is straightforward: what is in the score has to be played: the Music comes first, never mind about the composer’s intention (and philosophic aspiration) expressed in his writings and correspondence. I wholeheartedly applaud Gilbert’s method: Let the music speak. He had no problem with the score, he had memorized it, an achievement that other conductors would revel in, as it is a long piece of 100 minutes! The first movement contains many big bangs, and the timpanist had a grand time. Let it be! What Gilbert achieved was to demonstrate how these big bangs related to other parts of the movement. It turned out to be a well-wrought piece of writing that, I am sorry to say, combines the sublime with the ridiculous. Just like in some of Tchaikovsky’symphonies, the audience might think that one particular big bang might mark the end of the work; no, the composer refuses to stop. I was scribbling in the dark my impressions of the work, and at the end of the first movement, I wrote down: “Bad taste!”

The second movement is a kind of minuet. And here the Gewandhaus Orchestra proved its mettle. Let us not forget, this is the orchestra that Mendelssohn conducted, and the string tone has to be non-Wagnerian. Gilbert must have found what is different from this own New York Philharmonic: the string tone is rich but light at the same time. When the strings entered into a dialogue with the woodwinds, this music was heart-warming. The balance between the various sections of the orchestra was perfect, with exquisite phrasing that showed absolutely no sign of artificiality. Gilbert is a violinist and violist: he knows the orchestra from the inside. (I cannot imagine how he feels when conducting the New York Philharmonic with his mother sitting at one of the violin desks!) Mahler wants the second movement to express the image of flowers in the summer. Whatever he may have intended, it is beautiful music that Gilbert and the Orchestra could bring to the fore.

The third movement is supposed to reflect the way of life of simple folk, which  paradoxically is conveyed by the huge forces of a symphony orchestra. The merriment that any listener could glean from the spritely rhythm, which changed its patterns all the time, was most enjoyable. The composer gives the opportunity to the post horn player to distinguish himself in long sustained passages of incomparable beauty. But again, Mahler does not know the danger of “much of a muchness”. I was enraptured with this rarely heard sound (that reminds me of how Schubert imitates it with piano accompaniment in the song “Die Post” of the song cycle Die Winterreise). I knew that at a certain point, that rapture had reached its peak and could not go on non-stop, but our beloved composer let it come back again and again. I scribbled down my remark in Thai in the programme, “ไม่ยอมจบโว้ย!” (Why the h… doesn’t he want to stop?). And of course, a big bang came after that.

Movements IV and V, as mentioned earlier, are supported by literary texts. The third movement contains a quotation from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra and is supposed to express a philosophical message on the human condition: man who is caught in nocturnal darkness yearns for eternal bliss (that perhaps never comes). Without the words, it would have been impossible to convey the exact meaning, yet the music itself is suggestive enough to make listeners feel along with the composer, The  soloist, contralto Gerhild Romberger, was superb, her voice possessing a dark timbre which carried the mood of the music so well. The fourth movement reminded me straightaway of the last movement of Mahler’s own Symphony No. 4, which Ikataro Yasaki conducted in Bangkok a few years back with absolute gusto and conviction. The chorus, representing the voice of three angels, sing a pious song, beseeching the Lord that the people might be spared the suffering and be granted the privilege of sharing a little of the “heavenly bread”. (In Symphony No. 4 the children dream of being overfed at a heavenly feast!) The two movements demonstrate how music and literature mutually illuminate each other.

It is left to the sixth and last movement to show how “absolute music” should be written. (The term was used by the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick in connection with Brahms’ instrumental music.) Anybody in doubt about what heights Mahler could reach should expose himself/herself to this music. We need not concern ourselves with Mahler’s philosophic pretensions, and his gift for expressing himself in language can prove to be distracting or even counter-productive in the sense that it puts us on our guard not to be misled by means other than music. “Symphony for me means: to build a world with all the means of the technique available”. A cynic might remark: that’s why he calls for eight horns and two sets of timpanis and makes the latter give very frequent big bangs. The markings for the sixth movement are given in German, and not Italian, “Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden” (slow, tranquil, deeply felt). Is it necessary to be so explicit? Any conductor with professional competence and musical sensitivity will be able to read from the score to what extent this music is “deeply felt”, and an adequate performance will condition the listener in the same way. However hostile we may have been to Mahler’s loquacity and verbosity, (which his friends and supporters want to share with the world), we shall be totally disarmed when confronted with the music of this last movement. Alan Gilbert had the score imprinted in his memory and directed the orchestra with just about the right measure of physical movement, unlike many of his colleagues who exploit the felicity of this music by way of improvised choreography on the rostrum. I shall quote none other than the Thai composer and band leader, Suntharaporn, who usually told his musicians and singers thus: “If the music is already emotionally charged, just play or sing it as it is without adding too much of your own emotion.” Alan Gilbert and the Gewandhaus Orchestra did just that, and did justice to Mahler by letting the music speak without excessive histrionics.

This concert testified to a few important phenomena: that Mahler at his greatest is very great; that a conductor who serves the music and not himself is the greatest: that an orchestra that puts the music above all else is a great orchestra; that an audience that knows how to concentrate on the music and not extracurricular activities is a great audience. To be part of such an experience is a kind of spiritual enrichment. A live concert is a unique: it is a communion of sorts.


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