All's Well That Ends Well
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 2
Melissa Kaye Shippen (soprano)
Makiko Narumi (mezzo)
Juilliard Choral Union
Jahja Ling (conductor)
Evaluating student orchestras is an arcane art. The performance must be judged not only on its intrinsic value but also as an educational experience. By their very nature, these ensembles are ever-changing bodies, the best and brightest going on to positions in the far-flung professional ensembles of the planet. Errors of enthusiasm can be moments to cherish in the larger scheme of developing fine musicians and their creative careers. But even in this context, last evening’s presentation of the Symphony # 2 of Gustav Mahler was sorely deficient.
The overriding difficulty with this reading was its lackluster conducting. Jahja Ling is a good soldier who simply has no feel for this lively music. The orchestra seemed lost in the complex rhythmic structure of the piece, intoning as if by rote its melodic subtleties. The individual strings were solid but there was never any sense of a pleasing blended sound and, although the woodwinds were tight, the brass was thick and fudgy. The Rabelaisian first movement, composed separately as a frightening tone poem, was, in Mr. Ling’s hands, little more than a series of meaningless passages and effects, all played at much too high a volume.
The Andante is based on the popular Schrammelmusik of its day. This Viennese danceband style has come to be associated with Mahler and seems nostalgic to a modern listener because of the many similar movements in his works which are meant to convey the feeling that something wonderful has passed forever. Perhaps the composer did not intend this miniature jewel of a movement to seem old-fashioned, but the effect on a twenty-first century listener is unmistakably that of lost style and grace (a similar phenomenon exists in the best work of Johann Strauss, Jr.). While the gloriously broadbrushed first and last movements of this gigantic work may seem to be the most difficult to mount in performance, it is much more of a critical test to put over the delicacy of this charming vignette and the challenge is magnified exponentially when the musicians are students. Here the conductor was totally out of his element, producing not a Viennese lilt but rather the march of a giant sloth. Again, the dynamics were not only irritatingly loud but also tediously unchanging, the only similarity in the movement to pop music being the contemporary formula that volume equals quality. The various instrumentalists all played their parts accurately but had no proper guidance to lead them through the Vienna woods.
However, a major change occurred when Makiko Narumi (not a student) sang her low mezzo part beautifully in the fourth section. Finally there was an adult present who could lead by example and the remainder of the work was actually quite well played. I have spent many years on the fringes of student orchestras (and was, in days of yore, a member of one) and strongly suspect that an inordinate amount of the precious rehearsal time was given over to the last movement, which demands integration with the singers. The mighty choral passages were attacked with gusto by a mixture of pupils and committed older folks and the orchestra appeared much crisper for the finale. In the great ending, the ensemble as a whole appeared miraculously resurrected.
My point of reference for this evening was a much more meaningful rendition of the same symphony a half a dozen years ago by Juilliard’s uptown rival the Manhattan School of Music. Then the students projected a deeper understanding of the aesthetics of the piece, sporting quite sophisticated dynamic control and making a significantly more accurate stab at the delicate idiom. But as an educational venture, last evening’s concert was not a total failure. Each student was able to store away a major Carnegie Hall performance under their belt and experience the thrill of a heady evening. Each learned what it means to be a small cog in a giant creative machine. However, every one of these young people also learned a lesson that is unfortunately oft repeated by their elders: you can get away with playing in as uninspired a manner as you would like so long as you leave the crowd with a big, boffo ending.
Frederick L. Kirshnit