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Concert Review/ Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Mariss Jansons & Jill Grove

img  Tobias

New York Choral Artists & Joseph Flummerfelt (Chorus Director)
The American Boychoir (Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, Music Director)

Mahler: Symphony No.3 in D Minor (1893-1896; rev. 1906)

    A composer, a philosopher, a visionary - Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is perhaps the ideal embodiment representing the glorious fruits of this tripartite. As a prolific composer, Mahler is known for no less than 9 Symphonies plus a symphony for tenor and alto that is disguised in a work called Das Lied von der Erde, and all of these come in addition to a vast catalogue of lieder that include Des klagende Lied, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Rückert Lieder and the Kindertotenlieder. As a philosopher, Mahler believed that music should be the portal that connects all forces of life, and throughout his lifetime, Mahler strived to reach an equilibrium between the polarities as “Mahler the Symphonist” and “Mahler the Poet.” One may conjure on the notion that he ultimately did reach such a resolution in his last composition with Das Lied von der Erde, although this claim continues to be the subject of debate. As a visionary, Mahler was noted for his quotation “Meine Zeit wird kommen,” and indeed, it was Leonard Bernstein who revived and confirmed this visionary statement in his famous High Fidelity Magazine article from September 1967, entitled “Mahler: His Time Has Come.”

   This year, the world celebrates Gustav Mahler unlike any years before. 2010-2011 represents the birth and death anniversaries of the composer, and sure enough, orchestras and concert halls around the world are buzzing with concerts and special festivals to commemorate the legacy of this musical giant. Carnegie Hall, for example, had just completed in May 2009 an intensive 10 day Mahler cycle with the Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez. Likewise, the Bamberg Symphony, the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra are just a handful of musical institutions who have committed themselves in a Mahler recording project. In addition, cities such as Iglau (the birthplace of Mahler) will be one of the cities where a special jubilee celebration on Mahler’s 150th birthday will take place. These coming months will certainly be busy times for many Mahlerites. 

   In spite of the current economic situation, major orchestras are committed to reach out to the international audience. In doing so, Mahler’s music frequently surfaces at the focal point of their presentation. Looking ahead into May 2011, for example, an international Mahler marathon will take place in Leipzig at the Gewandhaus that will include a stellar cast of conductors (Chailly, Gilbert, Harding, Luisi, Märkl, and Zinman). Similarly, this very concert that took place at the Carnegie Hall on February 17th represented not only the sequel to a spellbound performance delivered by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and its Chief Conductor Mariss Jansons the evening past (see review link on Tokafi), but it also represented part of the RCO’s very own Mahler marathon. This performance of Mahler’s Symphony No.3 was the RCO’s only American (and international) performance, and thus, it came as no surprise that it was a sold-out performance.

  Mahler wrote that a symphony should have the magnitude that encompasses the whole world. If it was necessary to select one of his Symphonies that abided with this vision, the Symphony No.3 would certainly be an irrefutable choice. Maestro Jansons and the RCO performed this work in one full breath – without an intermission – and were literal with Mahler’s instructions to perform the work in continuity between the fifth and sixth movements. Indeed, such an arrangement was proven to be a strenuous exercise for many to sit through the entire 100 minute duration, but this was a disciplined crowd who kept their fidgeting to a minimum. Part One is represented by the first movement, which Mahler had once entitled “Pan awakes; Summer marches in.” A majestic theme enforced by massed horns signals the beginnings of the universe as it unfolds. Here, amplified by the acoustics in the Issac Stern Auditorium, the magnitude in this unison of eight horns carried through to such acoustic magnificence; in a way, this foreshadowed the energy that retained with this performance. The gruesome imagery to a ‘dark winter’ that subsequently followed was represented by a commoner’s march theme that the percussionists and brass players echoed in a fanfare. As a striking contrast, the imagery to a “life-enriching summer” was finely executed by the winds of the RCO, which was amplified with four each of bassoons, flutes, oboes, and five clarinets. Concertmaster Vecko Eschkenazy also gave a most scintillating solo, here in the first and later again in the fourth movements, whose theme in the violin was later reciprocated by the oboes. This interchange of thematic materials was also complemented by short trumpet calls, whose motives offered an injection of freshness into the densely-packed music score.

   The remainder five movements constitute what Mahler called Part 2 of the Symphony. The second movement or “What the flowers of the meadow tell me” is a disguised Minuet, whose overall tranquility and solitude act in direct contrast to the high-drama presented in the previous movement. The dance-like qualities were elegantly introduced by the winds of the RCO. The third movement or “What the animals in the woods tell me” is a movement whose material Mahler borrowed from one of his previous compositions. “Ablösung im Sommer,” an art song from the collection of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, has a narrative whose depictions of death (ie. the death of the cuckoo) and rebirth (ie. the nightingale takes charge in the forest) could be heard echoed by orchestral personifications. These were rendered by no less fluid playing from the flautists and the two harpists interchanging in cross dialogues. Midway in this movement, Maestro Jansons also introduced a rarity into the orchestra, whose symbolic representation of “distant places and sentimental longing” was brought forth from an off-stage tune emanating on the left side of the Ronald O. Perelman Stage. The posthorn soloist, whose name was never acknowledged in this programme notes, presented his melody with just the appropriate volume and mellow quality that made him stood out as a major highlight in this movement.

   The fourth movement or “What the night tells me” introduced the American mezzo-soprano Jill Grove in her rendition of text based on Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Here Ms. Grove, with her experience as a Wagnerian contralto and prior reading of Mahler’s Symphony No.8, greatly benefited and facilitated her projection of tone, as well as her control and breath of sound as needed in this movement (those present may recall how clearly she articulated the last syllable of “O Mensch!”) One minor limitation, however, was that Ms. Grove was visually found buried on the left of the stage next to the harpist. While her voice was sufficient to most attending on the main floor, it may have helped those seated at the far back of the hall if she could be offered a platform to elevate her vocal projection. The fifth movement presented the New York Choral Artists and American Boychoir, whose opening entry “Bimm, bamm, bimm, bamm” mimicked the angelic calls that was central to the title of this movement, “What the angels tell me.” Here, Maestro Jansons must have given a good work-up with the singers prior to this performance. Both vocal ensembles gave a vivid reading as one homogenous group, which contrasted the role of the repentant sinner in the central section as presented by Ms. Grove. This exchange of text was carefully cushioned by the clear direction under Maestro Jansons. But, arguably, the ‘highlight’ to this entire work was saved till the very final movement, which was labeled as “What love tells me” and “What God tells me.” This movement opened itself by the bed of serene strings which the RCO played “a divisi.” With a tempo that presented itself as “Langsam. Rulhevoll. Empfunden,” the ability to maintain a continuous line was central in suspending the motion of time. And so they did, the RCO string players, whose broad and melodic lines were thick but transparent, painful but heavenly. If a single word could reinforce this penetrating feeling of stirring optimism, as Dr. Richard E. Rodda referred in his programme notes, “timelessness” would certainly not be regarded as an under-statement. Unlike most of Mahler Symphonies¸ this Symphony No.3 is also the only one in which optimism is blatantly presented by an echoing series of trumpet calls and heartfelt drumbeats. Maestro Jansons presented the movement with triumphal unity. 

   Perhaps the best way to summarize the experience of this performance could be fittingly appreciated from a quotation left by Mahler himself before his own death: “What is best in music is not to be found in the notes.” Indeed, the answer to this quotation was provided to us by Maestro Jansons, the RCO and the featured artists in this performance: beauty of music lies not in the notes, but what lies in between.

By Patrick P.L. Lam

Image by Marco Borggreve

Homepage: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Homepage: Jill Grove
Homepage: Carnegie Hall

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