here seem to be two kinds of Mahler conductors: those who scrupulously adhere to the composer’s very detailed performing instructions, letting the score speak for itself, and those who add interpretive value to those instructions, prolonging ritards into moments of stasis, dwelling lovingly on details, pulling apart the inner workings of Mahler’s original harmonic language, and ecstatically prolonging climactic moments. To put the matter up front, I am a strong partisan of the first approach, and usually have a negative response to the second.
Perhaps it is unduly portentous to say that the still new Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is enigmatic, but his uneven performances and inconsistent approaches to interpretation and orchestral sound have been somewhat puzzling. These two recent concerts, now, have impressed on me that he has finally hit his stride with the orchestra, although he has already achieved some important successes over the past two years—above all, the concert performances of Strauss’s Salome and Elektra—and there has been a lot to like in his Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Brahms. These Tanglewood concerts are in fact not the first which I thought showed that he had developed in the orchestra a new style of playing together as a group—one very different from that so painstakingly developed by James Levine and insouciantly left to tend itself by Seiji Ozawa.
Boston has had a very good music season since the first of the year. Notably, Andris Nelsons has established himself ever more fully as leader of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After a triumphant concert performance of Strauss’s Elektra in the fall, Nelsons came back with especially strong accounts of three large-scale symphonies: the Shostakovich Eighth in March, and the Bruckner Third and Mahler Ninth in April. All were brilliantly played by the orchestra, which seems to have accommodated itself to Nelsons very well.
As everyone in New England knows, this winter was one long slog. But significant musical events actually got to take place, and some of these have been exceptional. But many have been frustrating and disappointing.
As life in the city slows down, life in the country west of Boston ratchets up. I went out to the Berkshires to catch as much as I could of Tanglewood’s fiftieth Festival of Contemporary Music, this year curated by Boston composers and longtime Tanglewood faculty members John Harbison (a composition fellow in 1959) and Michael Gandolfi (a fellow in 1986).
According to the song, “love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage,” and the same ought to apply to orchestras and conductors. When they do, the results are like love, but when they don’t, it’s a relief when the partnership dissolves. Two concerts at Tanglewood with two very different orchestras and conductors illustrated this dramatically. The orchestras in question were the venerable Boston Symphony working its way through another intense summer of three programs per weekend, and the extremely youthful (ages 16-18) National Youth Orchestra which first assembled this month, at the start of a nation-wide tour. The conductors were the Austrian Manfred Honeck, currently director in Pittsburg, and the American David Robertson, Music Director in both St. Louis and Sydney.
Mahler’s Third Symphony is a sprawling, evening-long monster of a piece. Nothing else can or should be programmed with it; once it is over, there is nothing more to be said. It is also the composer’s break-out work, despite the obvious power and accomplishment exhibited by his previous symphonies. In the First and Second Symphonies, Mahler focuses on himself: on his rebellions against conventions and stultifications of society in the First, and against the notion of mortality and the limitations of the human condition in the Second. All of this is expressed as the musical response of a deeply sensitive and conflicted individual. The break-out achieved by the Third is its transcendence of the individual; Mahler succeeds in identifying his compositional voice or musical persona with the entire cosmos, from the life forms of nature to the mysteries of humanity and of the divine to the transcendent force of love. Obviously, there is still a great deal in this that is personal, but the intensity of feeling which is so magisterially developed belongs to the composition, not the composer. For this reason, I also find this a more powerful and convincing work, despite some roughness in design: its intentions lack all traces of self-indulgence.
Not since the Dresden Staatskapelle last played here has an event exuded a like aura of serious appreciation. Despite its current state of unsettled leadership, the Boston Symphony represents a substantial portion of America’s iconic musical past, and you had the feeling on Wednesday that some very proper Bostonians, themselves virtual institutions, had emerged from public obscurity to render homage. Indeed, it was almost disturbing to witness the age of the audience, which in San Francisco tends to be youngish and oriented to date-night. The young, of course, ever perceive disapproval on the faces of the old, though this can be an inadvertent byproduct of trying to focus uncooperative eyes. Some of us in our sixties ruefully begin to notice this. But my imagination wasn’t prepared for the scene in the lobby, where a thousand apparently scowling octogenarians patrolled the halls like alligators—-peering challenges into the not-quite-recognized faces of enemies. Thank heavens for the rejuvenating waters of music!