or Thoughts in preparation for attending my first live performance of one of the greatest symphonies ever written
My goodness. How long I’ve been waiting for this concert.
And I know it’s not Vienna or New York or Chicago or anything, but it’s still Mahler, and it’s still one of the most respected (or at least oldest) ensembles in the country. And I don’t have to travel down to 台中 to hear them.
In any case, this was the Mahler work that made me fall in love with Mahler, and I’m not entirely sure why. (Also, if you’re unfamiliar with this work, please check out this free lecture by Benjamin Zander about the piece. It is amazing and makes me realize I know nothing about this work. I’ll link to it again below.) It was, at the time, undoubtedly the most all-encompassing thing, the most outrageously large piece of music I’d ever tackled, and it was sumptuously overwhelming. I’ve since then been able to hear a few of Mahler’s symphonies live: the third, the fourth (with another [better] chance coming up soon with the Taipei Symphony), the fifth (actually earlier than my fascination with the second), and the ninth, with the first (with the Chicago Symphony!) and the sixth (by our local NSO) on the way in the coming months, so adding the second to that list is an excellent, very exciting thing.
Anyway, I bought my favorite seats for this event, and it was a very long time ago, around mid-summer, that they went on sale, and I snatched them up the day they were available. The poor lady at the counter had to do some refreshing of the system because I’d gotten there only minutes after they went on sale. But I got them.
Also, a while back I wrote an article about Concerts for Newcomers where I described how maybe a piece like Mahler’s Resurrection was not the best choice for a first timer, but then again… it’s Mahler, and I’ve known people to be so completely blown over by the perfectness and power of this work that it didn’t matter, so I invited lots of people, counting on the appreciation of the music. Aside from the human that I brought with me, there ended up being at least four others who came along for the ride.
It’s really something to hear a piece like Mahler 2 or 3 live, and the (above-linked) performance of Mahler 3 under none other than Eliahu Inbal was an absolutely incredible thing to hear, truly fantastic, and I was thrilled to have been there. Really blew me away. That being said, I don’t have the emotional connection to the third that I do the second.
Well, that’s not true. I do have a very emotional connection to it; that connection is not as sentimental as it is with the second. Whatever you call it, the second is very special to me, and I’ve never heard it live. Until yesterday.
As with any concert you walk into preparing to hear a piece you love, there are certain expectations: I expect the horns to hit their high notes without cracking, for one, among the other more obvious demands. For better or worse, we’re often conditioned to or really familiar and at home with certain performances or interpretations of our favorite works, and this informs or affects our impression of a live performance of that piece. Recently having seen the Vienna Philharmonic perform a few pieces I feel I know quite well (the first symphonies of Beethoven and Prokofiev), I can say the live performances were easily better than any performance of those works I’ve ever heard in any recording.
But Mahler… it’s Mahler. And you wouldn’t think there would be such room for interpretation in a composer who’s given such explicit directions about what he wants for his work. The above-linked Zander lecture wonderfully illustrates this, showing that an intelligent (or perceptive) conductor can come to very logical conclusions, or at least conclusions that can be backed up by musical thought, to produce an even more informed performance.
What I mean to say in all this is that there are many different versions of this work. Abbado and Mehta are my Mahler men. They’re my go-tos for Mahler symphonies, and they can just about do no wrong. We featured Abbado’s third and Mehta’s fourth with different ensembles when we discussed those pieces. The recording of Mahler 2 that I fell in love with, however, was, maybe surprisingly, that of my hometown Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Yoel Levi. I would go so far as to say… that I like it just about as much as Mehta’s in Vienna. If you think that’s ridiculous, go buy the album and listen to it. It’s really spectacular.
Anyway, all of that was to say that I really love this piece a whole lot and I was hoping the performance was an inspired one. Reading the conductor’s Wikipedia page gave me lots of confidence in his ability to interpret a work like this, seeing the great experience he seems to have.
I… didn’t want to ruin the freshness of the piece; it’d been a while since I listened to it, but last week, I turned to my favorite YouTube video of the piece (and really overall an incredible, perhaps flawless performance), included below:
Once I got a few minutes into the first movement, there was no tearing me away, and as usual, by the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful moment in the piece, right at ‘wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!‘ I was in tears. It gets me every. single. time.
Then I dreamt about the piece, and the next day I read the score along with Boulez’s recording (for his impeccable clarity and x-ray score vision, wonderful for score-reading). This is perhaps a strange activity in which to engage in the lounge/lobby of your office. The first four movements were fine. I may have moved a bit, but the final movement was tough. Again… at ‘mein Herz‘ I was struck with emotion and had to gather myself.
I will be dining with some fellow attendees tomorrow and although we won’t all be sitting together, I’ll have to preface the piece with a few statements, a few about parts of the piece to look out for, and then that I will be in tears by the end.
That’s just about all I have to say about the piece (who are we kidding? I have tons I could say about it), but I wanted to keep the concert review article about the concert, and not about my thoughts on and love of the piece. That will come next.