Concert Review: Mahler 3

as performed by the Taipei Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Eliahu Inbal on April 6, 2015.

Again… There are some concerts that you’re so excited about you lose sleep over, concerts that make you feel like your ticket in is the golden ticket for Willy Wonka’s Whatever it Was (if you’re into that sort of thing), and when you file into the concert hall (of hopefully well-behaved, polite, respectful patrons), you feel a cozy sense of togetherness, of privilege, of camaraderie in the knowledge that you are preparing to experience something that only these few thousand (ish?) people on earth in attendance will experience and ever be able to talk about.
There have been a few of these real once-in-a-lifetime experiences in the past few years. I saw Valentina Lisitsa live back in 2013, I saw Hilary Hahn live earlier this year, I saw (and met) Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic (sat front row) (before I started this blog; no article), and got to see (and almost meet) Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia last month. Phew. Those are kind of at the top of my list.
But this is another one. Why?
Well, when I saw Mahler’s fifth performed here in Taipei a few years back, I got started on a stint of curiosity that quickly became an obsession. You will also notice how terrible my writing was in discussing a piece I really did not understand, but it was a start, and I eventually decided I need to hear every Mahler symphony live. Before last week, I had been able to mark off my list the fourth, fifth, and ninth. There are a few of his symphonies that present some specific challenges to
performance, mostly taking the form of enormous forces: the second, third, and eighth come to mind.
So when I saw in a program a few months ago that Maestro Eliahu Inbal would be coming to conduct the Taipei Symphony (an orchestra I’ve come to know better and better, along with their conductor, Maestro Gilbert Varga) in a performance of the third, I was beside myself. “Tickets must be purchased,” I told myself “at whatever cost.” Shockingly, that cost, for what I personally consider to be the best seats in the house, was only about $18. It was so cheap that… it almost made me sad. I was thrilled, but also almost disappointed that I would be experiencing this symphony, this enormous once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece without anyone’s hand to grip when it all sinks in that it will be happening. While that won’t be happening, I shared my excitement with a few coworkers, suggesting that if they REALLY want to have an experience, they should come and listen. I understand that a piece like Mahler’s third can be overwhelming even for the initiated, but… it turns out one of my coworkers bought a ticket like a month after I did… AND HE’S SITTING RIGHT NEXT TO ME. So that happened.
We made plans to grab a bite to eat beforehand and I did my best to fill him in on what is essentially a half-century of classical music history. For the unabashedly unabridged version, go check out the entire German(ic) Symphony series, which sortofkindof culminates with Mahler’s third. That’s not a light conversation to have over dinner (probably THE best pizza in all of Taipei [or Taiwan?]), and try to convey enough to make the experience as meaningful as possible.
Thankfully, he’s a music person to begin with (just not classical) so it all kind of made sense.
I realized, though, that my explanation of the piece (in Chinese and condensed down to ten or fifteen minutes) contained no explanation of the “what the… tells me” bit, because I don’t care much for that program, but we went to hear the pre-concert lecture and the gentleman talked about it. There was also lots of information in the program about it, so I felt pretty okay about getting him up-to-speed before the concert.
It was a pretty full hall, and as I thought, we had the best seats in the house (in my opinion). Once in the hall, it was obvious even to the newcomer that the stage was packed. Violins’ and cellos’ chairs were perched what seemed like inches from the edge of the stage to make room for the small army of extra instruments, two harps, two sets of timpani, and room for the alto and two choruses in the back. It was a jam packed stage before people ever walked out.
But then they walked out, and applause began and the place started filling up. I had this feeling in my chest like the one you have when you’re climbing the first ascent of a roller coaster and the only two things you’re focusing on are the ticking as the car ascends, and your heartbeat. I was giddy. Everyone settles in, concertmaster comes out, tuning tuning tuning, he sits down, and Inbal walks out to a warm round of applause. (Note obviously that none of the vocalists have taken their seats yet. There’s still an hour before they need to be on stage).
I’ve listened to the opening of this piece so many times: those French horns. I’ve watched the Concertgebouw play it and tried to imagine myself there. Still, it was nothing like hearing it live. It literally took my breath away. The downbeat (or magical ‘poof’ gesture) was given and the horns rang out in raw fury. There were only eight of them, I think, but they were truly awesome.
I sat white-knuckled for the entire first movement. It is beyond belief to me that something like this came from someone’s head, that they envisioned it, and that what before seemed like a long, drawn-out dramatic movement with a weird marchy bit in the middle now seems so coherent, tightly organized, and logical and deeply moving. I was nearly in tears after the first subject was played, just because it’s phenomenal that something like this exists, and after having heard it through headphones at my desk or in my living room or on my couch or on the bus so many times, to experience it live… was almost kind of surreal.
The performance was so intense. Well, let’s get to that later.
I noticed Inbal’s tempi were a bit brisk, but I didn’t mind it at all. He conducted this orchestra like he’s known them for decades: teeny gestures, head tilts, small details, but so attune and completely in control.
After the first movement was over, when that last note thundered out, even I nearly burst out into applause. I had to catch myself. It was rapturous and captivating and just amazing. People did clap, but realized they shouldn’t and stopped. There was some shuffling and the second movement began. There’s an obvious and very strong contrast between these two movements, and the second is quiet and bucolic and sweet. It kind of gets into you though, and the middle (very Jewish sounding) section was taken super fast, but it was superbly done, really great movement.
The third movement was also excellent, but I did notice by this time some degree of fatigue in the brass (mostly just the horns, poor guys). The offstage trumpet solo was spot on. Really top notch there. Beautiful sound, excellent control, very well done. I was impressed. I forget how long this movement is.
After this movement, our dear Maestro walks offstage (presumably to have a drink of water or breathe) while the choruses file on stage. Our beautiful alto also appears (I saw her perform in Gurre-Lieder last year), and the Sehr Langsam begins. She was stunning. There’s not actually a whole lot going on for her in that movement, but she was (appropriately) angelic. They jumped attacca into the fifth movement and the choruses were (appropriately) divine. Crisp and clear and just fantastic.
It’s perhaps worth noting that at almost every point throughout this symphony, I was either white-knuckled, holding my breath, or goose-bumped. It is an intense listening experience. This sweet, crisp, much lighter feeling movement is always over too soon, in my opinion, but it was a breath of fresh air, and then we move again without pause into the final movement.
I did weep here. Aside from some jackass behind me drowning in her own snot and coughing and blowing her nose the whole time, (well, and even despite that) it was a sublime 20+ minutes of music. Inbal was so in control of every detail compelling rather than commanding, and the whole thing was warm and big and swelling and beautiful and at turns epic and tragic and blissful. I always forget what an amazing and epic final movement this is and how it gets better and better. When the timpani began beating out their last final notes over the whole orchestra singing, it made my head spin. I couldn’t breathe. It was one of the greatest moments in music to sit in the presence of that sound.
That all being said, I will admit that part of it is my being enamored with the idea of hearing Mahler 3 live for the first time. It’s apparently performed more often than I realized, because a gentleman behind me said this is the third time in the past decade he’s heard it in that very hall. In any case, as a relatively recent student, I was elated to have the chance to hear it, but with that comes another danger.
It’s hard to criticize the performance of a piece you don’t know very well. I won’t say I know this piece well enough to do any kind of presentation (conducting, performance for sure) or anything like that, but I’ve listened to many different recordings of it on many occasions, so I feel pretty familiar with how it should feel and how a few different conductors treat it, and I will say I would have been sorely disappointed if the performance had been of the (lacking) caliber of some previous concerts I’ve attended (of other ensembles). This concert was special. I’ve heard the Taipei Symphony perform before, each time under Varga, and I’m not sure if last week’s concert was the performers stepping up to this massive work, the result of extra preparation, a passion for the piece (on the part of the performers; obviously the conductor), or just Inbal’s influence, but the piece was inspired, passionate, energetic and real.
As I stated (or tried to) when speaking of their performance back in March of their performance of Prokofiev’s classical symphony, the Mahler was so intense. The highs were higher and the lows were lower. Nothing went to an ‘over-gild the lily’ extreme of some Mahler composers, but nothing in this performance was done plainly or without anything but the greatest of intensity. There was such focus, such passion in this performance, and that’s not an easy thing to do, necessarily, much less maintain for an hour and a half, to keep that level of performance and focus clear through to the sublime finale of the piece. I was absolutely overjoyed.

I got to meet Maestro Inbal afterward, and while he seemed like a very nice gentleman, he seemed tired (which is perfectly understandable) and it seemed a little tiring for him to agree to a handshake, but he obliged. He is obviously the kind of person I would have loved to have the chance to sit down with and ask all sorts of questions about his strategic and artistic decisions in rehearsals and how he addressed the piece, but alas… I was first in line for the autograph, and by the time I walked out, the line had wrapped halfway around the concert hall (well, almost), so there’s obviously zero time for chit-chat, poor guy.
In any case, it is a pleasure and an honor to be able to check Mahler’s enormous third symphony off of my “hear these live” list, much more having heard such a wonderful performance of it last week. Thank you very much.

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