NSO’s Mahler 7

Songs of Destiny and the Night

In contrast with last week’s meagre turnout, depending on who you ask, due to Bartók and/or Sibelius, we had a packed concert hall tonight for Mahler’s seventh symphony, preceded by Brahms’ Schicksalslied. 

Nearly as fascinating as the fact that Sibelius seems to turn away local concertgoers is the fact that Mahler brings them out of the woodwork, but it’s a specific type of concertgoer, the kind who show up to be seen, who think it makes them a better or more interesting person somehow. I really feel that way, that Mahler has now (recently) achieved that level of celebrity here. I say this because I saw a lot of faces I’ve never seen before, and some people I regret to see again. And to me, that’s kind of obvious, because some of them act like kids going on a field trip, not frequenting a place they come to enjoy something they know and love.

Anyway, enough social commentary.

It was a great disappointment that Brahms’ German Requiem in January was canceled (not NSO), but his Schicksalslied is kind of its younger sibling, in a way. It’s from around the same time, also calls for chorus, and overall has the same sort of (literally) heavenly beauty (most directly afforded by the presence of chorus) along with some really climactic fiery passages, all crammed into the space of around 20 minutes.

A fellow concertgoer with whom I’ve chatted before said she felt the chorus didn’t blend well with the ensemble (or vice versa) but maybe I’m just too enamored with the presence of a chorus to be too picky. I’m fascinated with how this relatively small group of people from that distance away can fill a hall like this, warmly, roundly. It’s so easy just to bask in that warmth, but perhaps they were a little unbalanced. I’d prefer that to barely being able to hear them, though. I enjoyed it muchly, and based on his intensity on the podium, Maestro Lu did too. It seems to be a piece he feels strongly about, and that was effectively communicated.

I thought that maybe, just maybe there’d be no intermission and we’d have the two pieces back-to-back, but the Brahms isn’t that short, so we got an intermission as long as the first half of the program, and came back for Mahler 7. It was just over two years ago that the NSO played Mahler 6 preceded by Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, but that’s a wildly different program than this one.

Aside from both pieces being ‘song of’ something, I don’t really see what the connection is between them, but it made for a good program. I was quite disappointed the first time I heard this piece live, and surprisingly impressed the second. To get my criticisms out of the way, I’ll say that I felt Lu’s interpretation was… interesting.

It’s an odd piece, no doubt, really the strangest of Mahler’s output, I think. There are bits and pieces of every recording of the work that I hear and like, but as someone recently said, there is no perfect Mahler 7 recording. It’s just a tricky piece. There are so many gear changes and pieces and seams, I feel, and while I can’t say it was poorly done, or that it was subpar or anything like that, some of the transitions, the connective tissue, if you will, seemed a bit odd.

By and large the piece was played exquisitely. Huge props to my friend Cindy, their principle horn, for doing an amazing job with all the solos and exposed writing throughout the entire piece. The brass really was on it tonight. If you know the piece, you know the writing is intense and demanding, and there were a few times when I felt like either they could have backed off just a quarter of a smidge or the strings could have come through better.

The first movement sounded the most awkward to my ear, my feel of the piece, just from what I’m used to. The second was terribly charming, but the third… the central scherzo, the real dark heart of the piece, was absolutely superb. It writhed and reeled and churned with all the foreboding this movement should have. Loved it.

And then we’re kind of on our way out of the valley, as it were. The fourth movement finally lets the very patient mandolin and guitar join the party, and Cindy is (and all the horns are) doing great with solos, and it performed perfectly the function that that movement should have, not only beautiful in itself, but contrasting and connecting (respectively) with the third and fifth movements.

The finale was just uproarious; it gets flak for being such a boisterous, celebratory end to what isn’t really a celebratory, bright piece, but this was the place more than any other where I felt Lu really leaned into the work’s idiosyncrasies instead of trying to work around them. It was all out celebration, timpani, roaring brass, the whole thing, to an absolutely almighty climax at the end.

I don’t mean to be critical about matters of interpretation, but I did feel in many places, especially in the first movement, but here and there throughout, where something was suddenly a little slower than I expected, or a little less time was spent on this or that, kind of in the way you’d handle corners on a track, decelerate, then hit the apex and accelerate through. The apex of some of the phrases or sections were different than what I”m used to, not bad, just very different.

All in all, though, with the wonderful solos from everyone onstage, the menacing scherzo, exhilarating finale, it was a wonderful reading. You are reminded hearing a piece live how wild it is that someone thought of this, devised it, created it, and put it down on paper, not to mention how complicated and challenging a piece like this is to get right, with everything from solos to textures across different sections, on and on….

So then just bravo.

This is my third Mahler 7, and I’m ready for another 2 (coming up!), and I’d love to hear another 4 (been a while), 6, Das Lied, and hopefully finally get around to hearing 10 soon. So that’s that for Mahler for about 6 weeks or so. There’s some good stuff coming up in May, though, and April, really… The NSO is headed to Korea next week for a concert or two, so we have an off week here in the home city, but some great stuff the following weeks. Thanks for reading.

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