Chetana Nagavajara

The Boston Symphony Orchestra under its new permanent conductor Andris Nelsons performed Mahler VI in Berlin last night, 5 September 2015, a marathon symphony lasting one and a half hour. I heard the Boston Symphony in Boston under Seiji Ozawa in Boston 30 years ago and know what it could do then. The way it performed last night would have fit into the mould of our Sanam Luang, whose full potential Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic failed to exploit. Nelsons was an acrobat, and not a very elegant one at that. Every phrase was exaggerated: he was, physically speaking, conducting too much, not realizing that he had before him one of America’s best instruments. Performing one night after the San Francisco Symphony, the Bostonians, in my very subjective view, ruined their own reputation. The young conductor had no concept of the work: he was intent on making every phrase and every note sound impressive. It did not. In 2002 I heard Pierre Boulez conduct the Berlin Staatskapelle in this same work: he turned it into a philosophical statement, and whatever excitement the music could create was of a contemplative, intellectual kind. The Berlin critic then was disappointed; I was not. So where’s the middle road? I must confess the young man got on my nerves, and the audience’s wild reaction disturbed me. I was lucky to get back to my hostel in half an hour, a record really, because all the underground and bus connections were perfect.

The dilemma facing a fervent music lover is that if he really wants to concentrate on listening to the music and get the most out of it, is it enough to listen to good recording, nowadays so perfectly edited that there should be no question of the musicians’ playing wrong notes or making too early or too late entries here and there? Listen to the “Digital Concert Hall”, live concerts produced by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and you will have to congratulate the engineers for having restored the “German sound” that some German critics some years ago accused Sir Simon Rattle of losing. The engineers have done their work so well, too well even, such that all performances seem to be characterized by the same sound of the august Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, whoever might be standing on the rostrum on that particular night in the Philharmonie. Some of us, serious listeners to classical music, would not buy that, and would prefer to be there at the LIVE CONCERT.

Well, there are problems connected with live concerts as well, which I encountered on the night of 5 September in Berlin. The all too histrionic choreography offered by the conductor Andris Nelsons proved to be distracting to me. In other words, he was doing too much in the sense that his physicality detracted from the integrity of the music. In the end I was robbed of my concentration that normally would be the source of enjoyment of the music and would also provide a basis for my critical reaction to the performance. But you cannot say that all conductors distract you. The reason for going to a live concert is to enjoy both the SIGHT and the SOUND. And sometimes the two conspire into a unity, whereby you can appreciate the music all the more because you can watch how the conductor communicates perfectly with his musicians and how he can make them listen to each other, thus forging a triangular rapport between conductor and musicians as well as musicians with fellow musicians. In that sense it is worth being present at a concert to hear and to watch how the music is performed. I can cite the example of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and their conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, in the concert of the previous evening.

Talking about distraction, Symphony No. 6 of Mahler has suffered from unnecessary distractions which do not help us to enjoy the music. First, those scholarly debates that have been going on for a century whether the “Scherzo” should be played before or after the “Andante”, as Mahler himself changed his mind about the order of the middle movements and was the source of the confusion himself. Well, why don’t we give a Sri Thanonchai[1] answer? If we can play it in whichever order we want on a CD by pressing on a button of our CD player, why don’t conductors do the same with the score: just turn to the page they want to start with? The other thing is the biographical background concocted by Mahler’s wife Alma. (This woman was terrible, as she once divulged the family secret that when Mahler married her, he was a virgin; but all their friends knew that she was not!) The information about the symphony echoing the playing of the two daughters turns out to be bad fiction, for at the time of the composition, the young daughter was only one month old. And what about the hammer blows, should there be two or three? Mahler had first prescribed three, only to change his mind later and removed the third blow. Some conductors want to be more original than the published score and insist on restoring the third blow. Alma Mahler again helped to identify which hammer blow was linked with what happened to Mahler in real life. There is no end to these non-musical distractions.

I shall have to be honest with my estimation of the Boston Symphony’s concert. Even when I closed my eyes during parts of the performance, I sensed that the music was not moving along its natural course. Somebody was unnecessarily overdriving these very able musicians, some of whom may have been there 30 years and must have performed under the world’s greatest conductors. In spite of all the gimmicks in the orchestration, we can take Mahler as a serious and honest musician who knew why and what he was experimenting and what he wanted to achieve. The main concept of the work should not be overlooked. The ups and downs in life – and they need not be Mahler’s own – are to be expressed via music, and Mahler was trying his utmost to “musicalize” his vision of the world and human life by using the full resources of a symphony orchestra. The conductor is there to transmit that message. The music has its quiet and its stormy moments. The conductor need not be overly concerned with choreographing those moments. Other conductors have achieved astounding results with lesser physical exertion. Music has its materiality, but it is its spirituality that turns it into an art form that some philosophers rank above all others. And in this respect, hearing or listening might take precedence over seeing. But we should not be too dogmatic about this, otherwise nobody will go to live concerts anymore.

[1]Sri Thanonchai is the main character of a tale popular in South East Asia, whose exploits are very much akin to the European counterpart, Till Eulenspiegel, while the South East Asian protagonist is particularly adept in his verbal skills.

(Rewritten and augmented on 8 September 2015)


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