NSO’s Mahler 2

featuring Günther Herbig, conductor; 陳美玲, soprano; 石易巧, mezzo-soprano

Mahler’s second, for me, is just one of those pieces. It was the first piece of Mahler’s that really, I don’t know, ‘spoke to me,‘ at the risk of sounding cliché. It’s a piece of such magnificence, such a vivid journey, that years later, I’m still transfixed even just listening to recordings of the work.

This concert is now my second time hearing this piece live. The first, a few years ago, wasn’t bad, necessarily; it was a performance full of energy and intensity, but lacked some degree of polish and technical refinement. On this occasion, though, with the NSO, I had higher expectations, especially with how they sounded for Bruckner last week.

With the exception of the elusive tenth, I have finally heard all of Mahler’s (completed) symphonies live, and after tonight, have heard all but 6, 8, and Das Lied twice live (1 and 5 the most I think).

I had some new and old friends in tow, tonight, too. On the one hand, Mahler 2 is a piece that requires a good deal of preparation, or, familiarity, or whatever, as a listener. On the other hand, though, it’s also so intense, so captivating, that you can’t not have an emotional response to the piece.

As I’ve said many times before, you don’t go hear a Mahler symphony; it is an event. It happens to you.

And tonight, it also happened to happen to four dear friends I brought along, all of whom are at various levels of familiarity with the concert hall and the piece. I could go on about how suitable this piece is for a new visitor to the concert hall, or how despite the grand scale of the work and its immensity, it’s actually very amenable to that kind of first listen, for a willing audience.

Tonight’s concert, as confirmed by my newly acquired Apple Watch, kept my heart rate up a lot higher than my average resting heart rate. It sounds cliche and even a bit silly, but yes, the concert was a bit surreal. It’s just a big deal for me. There’s been a lot of surreal stuff going on this week, with places and people and what essentially amounts to a vacation in my own ‘hometown.’

This concert was a sublime way to cap off that week, something I’d been looking forward to for nearly a year, and is a good example, to me, of what a concert should be, again with willing participants.

The previous time I went to hear this work, it was probably of greater wildness, or intensity, or whatever, than Herbig’s reading last night, but it was far inferior technically. However, that previous reading didn’t see the orchestra miss bars and get lost in the score a full, like, three times. That was scary, but honestly, it wasn’t so catastrophic that my guests even noticed. The wheels did not come off.

That aside, it was a really wonderful performance. People love to be critics because they think it makes them sound like experts, but it only makes them sound critical. Aside from a few (granted, inexcusable) missteps in the orchestra, the sound of the ensemble was really wonderful, the vocalists were sublime, and by and large, the interpretation was wonderful.

Herbig didn’t over-gild the piece like, say, Bernstein or others, but wasn’t as surgical as say, Boulez (but who is?). There were a few moments in the first movement, towards the end, those tricky areas punctuated by pauses and restarts, where I felt there were unnecessary slow downs, and the triplet figure at the very end suddenly sped up to a tempo that made it a little muddy.

In perfect contrast with all that intensity though, the sheer, overwhelming drama of the first movement, which was ultimately well executed, the second movement’s nostalgia and sentimentality came through loud and clear. It was really perfect.

There were breathtaking moments in each movement, almost as if… somehow I didn’t expect it to sound exactly like the recordings I listen to. It did. It pinpointed very well the way I explained it to my guests for the evening, the second movement’s sentimentality and the futility and absurdity of the scherzo. I was glad that the chorus was already out from the get-go, and the vocalists came out before the third movement, thus preserving the unity of everything that followed.

And what followed was gorgeous, really. 石易巧 (Miss Shih) sounded solemn, angelic, tender, all the things you want in an Urlicht.

The finale was just overwhelming. It was everything you expect, want, hope the finale to be, down to being able to hear the organ in the outrageously powerful concluding moments.

The response upon Herbig’s lowering of the baton was uproarious. I’ve never once seen a standing ovation truly gain traction where everyone stands up, but lots of people were out of their seats pretty quickly, with shouts of ‘bravo’. This response, however, did not carry through, apparently, to Facebook posts and comments, where people love to be critical and act like they know better.

I am 100% not disappointed in the performance last night, not because it was complete perfection, but because it achieved what a performance of the piece should achieve. Considering the terrifying possibility of getting completely lost in the score and the wheels really falling off, it was all in all a minor offense. What’s the use in letting that mar the immensely powerful experience of hearing this work live? What does it accomplish?

I enjoyed the performance immensely because I wanted to, because overall it was well executed, well presented, and enjoyable. I’m looking very forward to whatever Mahler the NSO’s next season contains, and hope that all you pompous critics won’t go, or else keep your mouths shut.

Bravo.

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