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Between Two Worlds

New York
Bard College
08/18/2002 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 8
Newark Boys Chorus
New York Virtuoso Singers
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

When Leopold Stokowski found himself in Munich at the outbreak of the Great War, he was forced to flee with just the belongings that he could carry. His choice of parcel was the score to the Symphony # 8 of Mahler, which he premiered in the United States the following year in twelve sold-out performances. The conductor had been part of an illustrious audience that had attended the world premiere on September 12, 1910, a guest list graced by the presence not only of musical luminaries Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Casella and Siegfried Wagner, but also figures from the broader realm of contemporary Germanic culture including Alfred Roller, Max Reinhardt and Thomas Mann. Mahler himself thought of the work as his greatest achievement and expended a tremendous amount of effort in preparing its inauguration, the last such experience of his quickly extinguishing life. After the glorious performance, the dying composer ignored the applause and made his way through the crowd of singers and instrumentalists, actually exceeding the soubriquet “Symphony of a Thousand” (there were over 850 voices on stage alone), in order to shake the hand of each boy chorister in turn. The work just presented was indeed celestial, no longer earthbound in its harmonies, thoughts, or even structure. The juxtaposition of an oratorio-style movement invoking the creative spirit with a fully developed scene from the ethos of opera was indeed unique and can be confusing upon a first hearing. Mahler had blurred the lines between cantata, song cycle and oratorio in his very first major work, Das Klagende Lied, and now, thanatological revelations allowing him to think three dimensionally, he presents more of a cube than a square in his monumental rethinking of the architecture of the symphony.

What saves the pairing of a medieval religious invocation, complete with organ pedal point and Latin text, and the closet opera act, with its kaleidoscope of Goethian characters interacting in deist German, from becoming a parataxis is the remarkable orchestral interlude. Significantly, in a huge work for chorus it is this short “absolute” section that is the most descriptive. Mahler fashions a stunning transition that consists of a musical recreation of the phenomenon of ionization, that previously (and subsequently) indescribable feeling that pervades events of great historical or personal import wherein one senses that there is a palpable change in the atmosphere around them. For many of my generation, this feeling is forever associated with the Kennedy assassination; for those of us in New York, thoughts of September 11 come to mind. Physically, the sense of electricity can be felt in the daily shower, but linking this thermodynamic excitement to the emotions is a rare and disturbing crystalline moment of clarity. Of course, nothing in music exists in a vacuum and there are antecedents to this memorable entr’acte, the Wolf Glen from Mahler’s beloved Der Freischuetz in particular, or the peregrination (in the opposite direction from the Mahler) of Berlioz’ own Faust, but the genius here is that the composer removes the fear from the equation: the goosebumps are no longer on the epidermis but rather the cerebellum. Busoni is the other composer who explores this rending of the fabric of the universe orchestrally: the introduction to his own Doktor Faust creates a similar mood, peeking behind the forbidden curtain. It is tempting to attribute Berg’s most atmospheric operatic scenes (the wood-gathering of Wozzeck and Andres or the jazz permeating the dressing room of Lulu) to this genesis as well, but there those highly charged atoms are generated from the psychoses of his characters forcing themselves to become external environmental factors. For Mahler, this interlude and its hesitant vocal aftermath provide the perfect bridge between the spiritual and the intellectual, a journey that eventually comes full circle in the remarkable similarities between the endings of both this uniquely Januarian work and the much more straightforward ”Resurrection” Symphony: something very special is going on here.

Although Leon Botstein receives most of the credit for these annual festivities, his equal partner in the realization process is cellist Robert Martin, who not only plans and prepares but is generally featured in the afternoon events. This day began with a chamber concert featuring works surrounding Mahler’s great synthesis. The level of performance was consistently high and introduced rare songs of Ansorge, Joseph Marx, and Alma. Especially remarkable were the pair of Rueckertlieder sung by mezzo Susan Platts, the major discovery of this year’s proceedings. It is only because I have heard Thomas Hampson with full orchestra at Carnegie Hall that I cannot unequivocally state that this reading of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen was the best that I have ever experienced in live performance. The highlight of the second half of the program was an intense and remarkably well executed String Quartet # 2 of Schoenberg, a work exactly contemporary with the mighty 8th. In this very muscular and yet romantically expressive reading led by Mr. Martin, special praise goes to the colorfully passionate phrasings of violist Hsin-yun Huang.

Performances of the Eighth Symphony are rare indeed. In fact, Professor Botstein admitted that this was the first opportunity that he had ever had to hear it live. He was fortunate to experience this magnificence initially at the Bard festival, as this was a superb effort, conveying a sense of otherworldliness and grandeur that completely overwhelmed any earthly problems of acoustics or intonation (considering the intensity of the humidity, the instrumentalists sounded remarkably pristine throughout). The Veni, creator spiritus was extremely powerful, the huge chorus intoning as one and shaking the very poles of the surrounding tent. The spontaneous outburst of applause after this first movement did not seem at all out of place and Botstein enhanced the moment by taking a rather long interval before remounting the podium. The interlude was conducted brilliantly, one especially eloquent ritardando sending chills through me (much appreciated in the African heat). In addition to its philosophical journey, the instrumental bridge serves as a gentle transition from the heavily Germanic color scheme of the initial invocation to a pastel world of ethereal sonority, much more French in its orientation and rare for a Viennese composer. In this well thought out performance, the voyage from cathedral organ (or, in this case, its electronic equivalent) to the harps of the cherubim seemed logical and seamless, comforting in a way inexpressible with mere words.

It was truly impossible to evaluate any of the soloists in the Faust scene, as unfortunately necessary heavy miking reduced all of their voices to the same level of volume, but it appeared that they represented a vast disparity from Ms. Platts’ angelic utterances to…well, a decidedly different level of distinction. The ensemble singing, however, was consistently good, the boys’ choir, who mercifully were allowed to jettison their neckties, placed in the front stage left on very high risers, soaring wonderfully and charmingly rough at times, calling to mind the joy of the composer at these naïve passages. What can be a difficult work seemed to be a real crowd pleaser this evening and all went back down the mountain refreshed and renewed.

Assuming that everything goes according to schedule, the new theater at Bard will be ready for next summer and therefore this could be the last ever festival concert in the tent. I have very pleasant memories of past events, most especially fond ones of sitting with Arnold Schoenberg’s children and grandchildren a few years ago. The new digs will be much better acoustically and allow for the presentation of fully staged operas and plays, but we will all miss the al fresco atmosphere of this most edifying of vacation divertissements.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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