Friday, February 26, 2016

Mahler's Symphony No. 8 — What a Treat!

Gustav Mahler 1860-1911
I've been a Mahler fan for most of my life. Don't know when it started but I'm well aware of the effect a Mahler symphony (and many of the songs) have on me. While the Second has been the one most often to bring me to tears (and to my feet when the applause starts, if I'm hearing a live presentation), it was the Eighth I could never get to hear in a live performance.

I love the Second, and I never tire of hearing it, either live or recorded, and I've attended many performances, both here in New York and in many cities I've traveled to. And I've never been disappointed; the music of the Second does not—in my opinion—lend itself to disappointment.

And the Second has a singular very special memory, too, for the most disrupting—in a positive sense of the word—performance of the Second I ever heard took place back on September 11, 2011. The New York Philharmonic, as its gift of remembrance to the citizens of New York on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, packed Philharmonic Hall with a free concert. And for those who could not get tickets, they set up chairs for thousands of people so they could be outside on Lincoln Center Plaza and watch the performance on huge projection screens and hear the music through a massive speaker system.

I was lucky enough to get in, along with a visiting and great personal friend from Berlin (who to this day remembers to thank me for taking her to that concert). The only down-side was that the free tickets were handed out helter-skelter, in no order, and we didn't get to sit together. No matter! It was an evening to remember, for many reasons, and I've thought often back on what that evening meant to so many of us New Yorkers. The performance got a lot of attention, and critic Graham Parker described what we were all feeling better than I ever could:

"At the end of the performance," Parker wrote, "what stood out for me was not the immediate ovation from the crowd in the hall, but the looks on the faces on the musicians of the Philharmonic. These jaded New Yorkers suddenly realized what they had done. They had helped heal through notes and gesture. They had given the hundreds of victims’ families and first responders a new perspective on the tragedy through their artistry. They had, in the most dramatic of terms, played like the great orchestra that they are. You could see that they had been changed by Mahler's 90 minutes of drama."

So I always approach Mahler with a certain point of view. I don't know quite how to describe it (reverence? awe? just sheer happiness to be able to experience this composer's great output? who knows?). The one thing that had been missing, though, was the Eighth. I knew about it. I have had for a time a splendid old CD of Rafael Kubelik and the Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunds (a re-mastered performance of about 1970 or so). And I've loved listening to it. But I had never attended a performance. It isn't performed that often (the logistics must be very forbidding except for the most well-organized and well-funded musical organizations) and, well, when it had been performed I had not been able to attend. I must have been traveling or something. 

And even though I had the recording, and occasionally listened on the radio when I knew in advance the Eighth was going to be performed, it wasn't the same. There's no way to get around it: any piece nicknamed "Symphonie der Tausend" is going to lose a little something in a recording. The piece wasn't called that for a joke. As James M. Keller wrote in a program notes for the New York Philharmonic several years ago—for a performance that I missed because that was a performance when was traveling and I remember clearly how disappointed I was to miss it—"The symphony's personnel requirements are indeed extraordinary. Its premiere included the participation of 858 singers and 171 instrumentalists (plus one conductor—Mahler himself)." Just reading the description of that first performance—on September 12, 1910—makes it clear that this is a symphony to be experienced in person, not in a recording.

On the other hand, YouTube has a very good video of the Eighth, something I had discovered some time back, a two-part video of the complete program. It's Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Caracas. It was the conclusion of the mighty LA Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra's Mahler Project in 2012, performing all of Mahler's symphonies first in Los Angeles and then in Caracas (if you want to try it, Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here). This is definitely worth listening to, if a live performance isn't available.

The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York
So why all this lead-in? Because now I've heard it—live! And it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that gives true meaning to the old idea of being in the right place at the right time. I'm so happy I live where I live. In the January issue of Opera News there was a delightfully fulsome article about Kent Tritle, one of the most popular (and famous) musicians in New York. His "real" job—I suppose it would be called—is Director of Cathedral Music at The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine on Manhattan's Upper West Side but that's only the beginning. He is also the conductor of Musica Sacra, the Oratorio Society of New York, and all the choirs of the cathedral. He teaches at Manhattan School of Music and the Julliard School, he is the organist for the cathedral, and as well as organist for the New York Philharmonic and the American Symphony Orchestra. And he was (briefly, sadly) host of a weekly Sunday radio show on New York's WQXR, our classical station, on choral music. He widely recognized for his good work, and when the Opera News article described the up-coming Mahler Eighth, we all ran for tickets. 

The performance was in the great nave of the cathedral, which gives an idea of what the sound was like (complete with about a 5-second reverberation according to one of our group, which just emphasized how engrossing—I suppose that's the right word—)the sound was. We were seated a little less than half-way back, and the sound was excellent. We could hear everything being sung very clearly; and the Eighth—as Mahler himself described it—is a "vocal symphony (just like my beloved Second, the Third, and the Fourth) so it is clearly critical to the performance that the singing come through as clearly and as cleanly as possible. It worked in this performance—there was no "muddling" (at least as far as I could tell—and that sometimes happens with these big choral pieces). And while there was a big crowd (someone told me the nave seated 5,000 people for each of the two performances—I'll take their word for it—I wasn't about to count!), in that high-ceilinged stone space, certainly all those human bodies didn't contribute to muddling the sound either. It was all just as clear as it should be.

And it was big. While it wasn't the 1,000-plus performers of the premiere in 1910 (or the 1,200-plus performers in Caracas), the 360 or more performers in the Cathedral Church of St. John made quite an impression. And one of the most impressive moments? Why not? As we were taking our seats, we noticed staff setting up a music stand in the aisle right next to where we were to sit. OK. I've performed Dvořák's Stabat Mater at St. Bartholomew's Church back in the old days of the great choir, and, yes, we had brass all over the upper balconies and in the back so I sort of knew what to expect. And sure enough, as we got toward the conclusion of Part 1, an associate conductor carrying his score came out to use that music stand and I looked up. On either side of us—high above the church floor—each of the tall arched openings had a brass player with instrument in place. At the precise moment, following the associate conductor next to us and Tritle up front, we had what must have been one of the most spectacular sounds I've ever heard. And of course it all gets repeated at the finale of Part 2. What a show! 

So there really is no way to convey any of what we heard, other than to just say how grateful I feel we are to be living in a time when we have experiences like this available to us. We are so lucky—as we in our family talk about all the time—and it's moments like this that when we share them (or when we write about them and read about them), we're aware that there is something very good going on. What splendid music we have to listen to!