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Music For A Dark Night

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
01/12/2007 -  
Webern: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10
Mahler: Symphony No. 7

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

Although Mahler 7 has been played and recorded much more often in recent years, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s program for this LA Philharmonic concert was strikingly unusual. Walt Disney Concert Hall was 90% full when Salonen came out on stage and took the microphone to introduce the concert, beginning with Webern’s rare, landmark Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10.

The conductor began his remarks with the observation that there are only six or seven years between the two pieces and yet they seem to spring from different universes. He quipped that Webern’s ten minute cult piece is the shortest in the orchestral repertoire, “but Mahler’s 7th … is… not.” At that time, musical language was about to explode. The culture was overwhelmed by societal neuroses; the musical universe was in the process of collapsing from a white giant down into a black hole. In the Webern work only a few words trickle out of that shrunken star, Salonen reflected, but words filled with emotion as intense as a haiku.

The instrumentation for the Webern is uniquely spare. The piece opens with high notes on the French horn and the mandolin. But the music’s mood makes it apparent that it comes from the same time period as the Mahler- it seemed that they shared the same overwhelming neuroses. I thought I could even hear the ghost of a tune from Mahler; or perhaps I could hear the intimation of almost anything lurking in my unconscious, in a kind of musical Rorschach test. Salonen’s conducting overflowed with motion, his arms whirling into the air, so much movement for just a few notes. But Webern expressed a galaxy of sound even if it was barely heard, as if at a galactic distance, merely suggested in the glimmering notes of remote, reflected starlight.

Mahler 7, “The Song of the Night,” began quietly, with a rare tenor horn call, rumbling trombones and perfect utterances from the bassoons, oboes and flutes. For this work, Salonen marshaled the vast forces of the orchestra, guiding them through the sky like a living constellation, in perfect synchronization. The music moved forward in fits and starts, now a halting trumpet fanfare, and now the interplay of brass and woodwind. The subject matter was the night, announcing the arrival of the age of anxiety, the dawn of the modern age. There were snatches of recognizable Mahlerian melody in the strings, but nothing that built toward any discernable form. The musical architecture remained beneath the surface, as if to suggest that sonata form had fallen into ruins, like classical architecture- its fragments tumbled beautifully about the landscape but no longer serving as any kind of shelter.

There were moments of sudden crescendo when Mahler’s musical language was unmistakable. But in marked contrast to the Mahler of the Titan or Resurrection symphonies, the language seemed chopped up in a mixer, fragmented. Toward the end of the first movement the music almost seemed to be going somewhere, but then dropped into dead silence. It was as if Mahler were officially moving beyond even the concept of traditional symphonic structure or sonata form, as music was soon to move beyond traditional harmonics toward the atonal. This shifting music frustrates any classical expectation; even exquisitely performed, it was challenging, even exhausting. Mahler treats the rules with contempt. He begins to offer beauty and satisfaction, and then purposely steers away from any sustained development.

Both the second and fourth movements carry the title, “Nachtmusik,” “Night Music.” In a kind of spiritual reversal to Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” this movement takes the jagged style that Mahler introduced in the first movement and enshrines it. This “Night Music” is flawlessly named; it is music taken from the sounds of the night, following a natural logic and progression governed only by the night itself, not by any conscious mind. The night feels spacious, scattered with bits of melody in solo instruments. Moments of mocking dirge-like marches reveal Mahler’s signature. But much of the night is surrounded by silence, the bare textures of few instruments.

The central scherzo opens with a ghostly violin solo, exquisitely played by concertmaster Martin Chalifour, but momentary, halting. The guitar springs into the air, then the flute, then a swirling viola. A tragic instant in the strings brings to mind the Adagietto of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. But melodies never really develop. There are variations, but nothing to get a grip on. Nonetheless, the music was darkly riveting.

The fourth movement, also titled “Nachtmusik,” suggested the song of night birds in the trill of an oboe. This night music was heavier, even more serious. Transitory crescendos lead to full stops, rests of dead silence. Then suddenly up again in wandering exploration, glimpses of majesty, bursts of starlight and star-fall. Even the triangle played haltingly. Brass fanfares lasted only three or four notes. But the effects were astounding, cowbells in the distance evoking flashes of memory and emotion almost like jazz scat, hinting at a recognizable tune then abruptly shearing away. Certain sounds were almost cries but quickly resolved into the night.

The Rondo-Finale was jaw dropping. The crash of percussion and massive brass fanfare were fragmented, faltering, but very modern. Bells, “rute” (a sort of broom that slaps the side of a brass drum), strings, all joined in the tremendous crescendo. The apparent lack of coherence and architecture throughout the symphony served brilliantly to make the cathartic finale even more spectacular. Salonen and the LA Philharmonic were ideally suited for this difficult music- precision, passion, and exquisite attention to detail… The music wandered by design; the musicians were always exactly where they wanted to be. The performance was absolutely taut, not slack for an instant. There were cheers with the standing ovation. Much of the audience seemed to be equally surprised in their delight. Look for the recording on I-Tunes. These pieces were scheduled to replace the American premiere of Kaija Saariaho's "La Passion de Simone," written for Dawn Upshaw and co-commissioned by the LA Philharmonic, which will now be held next year.

Thomas Aujero Small



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