Knight Concert Hall
11/16/2012 - & November 17, 2012
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 3
Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano)
University of Miami Frost Symphonic Women’s Chorus, Women of the Master Chorale of South Florida, Miami Children’s Chorus, Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor)
Here is one of the big ones; no intermissions so only the most dedicated music lovers are in the house. All kidding aside, attending Mahler sort of takes the same commitment needed for a Wagner opera. The first movement alone runs over thirty minutes and is packed with enough variety that it could stand alone. Welcome back, Cleveland Orchestra.
It will probably always be fair to say that Mahler is an acquired taste. It seems unlikely that people who do not have a firm grounding in his predecessors will be able to immediately embrace him. And just as Beethoven, Mahler redefined the symphony. Mahler's first might be light in comparison to what he wrote afterward, but it is an accurate sign of what was to come. Chances are always taken; and when we are ready, the rewards are overwhelming; still it can often go on a lot longer than is necessary. But if you say that to one of Mahler's acolytes, he or she may never speak to you again. Mahler is to symphonic music what Stephen Sondheim is to American Musical Theatre, and if you don't share the opinion of the flame keepers, they look at you with pitiable contempt (“the poor thing just can't get it”).
Introducing Mahler to a newcomer is something to approach with care. I used to avoid him because he asked more of me than I was ready to give; it took a couple decades, and even now I attend only after rediscovering the courage. Something tells me that Gustav himself would have taken that as the highest compliment. As beautiful and moving as his work is, you can't help but feel that you have agreed to take a journey through his tortured soul. This symphony's demands are exceptional which explains why it is rarely offered.
So Miamians are grateful. It is interesting to read how Mahler didn't like having to explain what his music meant. Too much talk and study can inhibit one's ability to simply feel. In the first movement alone my imagination goes to such extremes as Brahms first, a hornpipeish melody, Disney's “Beauty and the Beast” (a parade march makes me think of “Be Our Guest”) and nods to Lohengrin,Parsifal and even The Ring. And this is simply me. It can be a particularly invigorating game to ask people to share their images from the wealth Mahler shared. Undoubtedly too much to hold on to in one exposure. Fortunately the next two movements are considerably shorter, one might hear what seems to be Richard Straussian motifs that give some “chicken before the egg” questions. Even its dark fourth movement is never overbearing with a kind of dignified sadness that is unusually moving. The bouncy next movement might make one reminisce about the final children's chorus in Hansel und Gretel; and with the last, Mahler's voice alone leads. So the complete symphony is not unlike a homage to late 19th through early 20th century German composers.
With Franz Welser-Möst at the helm, the tempo always feels precise. Except for recording, this was my first experience with this symphony. Hearing it live is, as is so often, an entirely different experience. One always notices sounds and subtleties for the first time. The muffled tones of the trumpet and drum during the third movement can only effectively be produced live. And the stunning endings of the first and third movement have a pulsing vitality that will never come through in any other medium. An almost superhuman concentration by both orchestra and audience is required during the last movement. Of course it can feel too long; we have just been given a light refreshment and now we are thrown back into angst. This is common in Mahler and that is precisely why his work is so challenging. You grow to value the unexpected.
Cleveland Orchestra was fortunate to obtain Bernarda Fink to deliver the alto solo. Her rapport with Welser-Möst accentuated the theory of less is more. And the three choruses provided a brightness to offset the intense solo that precedes it.
Probably no Mahler symphony feels as sincerely joyful as this one. It is not unreasonable to be converted to the cult. And with a veritable menagerie of musical toys, this performance felt much shorter than ninety minutes.
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