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From Old to New Amsterdam

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/06/2002 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 2
Janice Watson (soprano)
Petra Lang (mezzo)
Westminster Symphonic Choir
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

“I remember distinctly that the first time I heard Mahler’s Second Symphony I was seized, especially in certain passages, with an excitement which expressed itself even physically, in the violent throbbing of my heart.”

Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea

At the opening night performance of West Side Story, there was a long silence after the final note was struck. A cast member, recalling the event many years later, related that he was gripped with the fear that all of their efforts had been in vain and that the crowd thought so little of the new idiom as to not even respond with polite applause. However, after what must have seemed like an eternity, the audience erupted in paroxysms of clapping, creating an ovation to rival any in modern theater history. For many there that evening, this was the most electric moment in their artistic lives. I was fortunate to experience a similar phenomenon once in the more classical arena. Seven or eight years ago I attended a performance at Avery Fisher Hall by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and its conductor Riccardo Chailly. On the program was the Symphony # 2 of Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose ecstatic third movement was presented so lovingly that the audience, in a rare moment of critical clarity, applauded the ensemble vigorously and actually provided an example of proper concert etiquette under extreme circumstances. This movement is always a fan favorite, but this performance was so overwhelming that some release of mass tension cried out for spontaneous creation. Needless to say, I have had very high expectations of this band and leader ever since and, I am happy to report, have never been disappointed even once (including Maestro’s frequent guest appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra). Now that he is stepping down, it seemed particularly important to check in with this conductor as he bids farewell to the glorious sound that he has so painstakingly nurtured.

This Mahler’s Second was a highly personal one. The Totenfeier section was measured and dramatic, reminiscent of the unhurried manner in which the composer himself performed the first movement of the 5th for the Welte-Mignon piano-roll company. The deliberate tempo reinforced the intensity of the drama and its universal implications. The magnificent strings of the Concertgebouw were gritty and even harsh in spots, telling a tale that perhaps makes us a bit too uncomfortable. By some necromancer’s trick, Chailly totally transformed these fine artists into an entirely different sounding string section for the Andante, a lighter, bouncier milieu for the convivial meeting of Upper Austrian humor and Viennese suavity. The “100 ukelele” pizzicato section was charming: if the first movement was Hallowe’en, the second was definitely New Year’s Eve.

Somewhere in the midst of the third movement, I realized that this extraordinary maestro was in complete command and control of every nuance and, although his individual stamp was everywhere, this was not a fussy or overly mothered effort but rather an extremely well crafted piece of detailed filigree. The golden voice of Petra Lang filled Carnegie Hall with warmth and spirituality, leaving us all with the sensation that we were indeed creatures bathed in Urlicht. The great finale was especially illuminating, Maestro taking the score’s directions Im Tempo des Scherzo literally. Here Chailly created one of those Brucknerian movements wherein it is impossible at any given point to say with certainty whether the pace is fast or slow. The overall speed was conventionally brisk, but individual phrases were taken with a much less hurried gait, leaving one amazed at their bas-relief profundity. The entire orchestral introduction seemed to be a mixture of the quotidian and the italicized.

The Westminster Choir had sat through the entire first movement and only the two soloists were allowed to enter after the rather long break designed for the latecomers to waddle in (Mahler himself used to wait ten full minutes at this critical juncture). It seemed a little odd to have them all seated there for such a long go, but this visual impression was actually planted in one’s memory for a reason. When they began to sing in the finale they did not stand, which certainly caught one’s eye in a similar manner to the offstage band’s capturing of one’s ear. Quite late in the movement, and only when the chorus began to intone in fortissimo glory, did they arise, a synaesthetic evocation of the soul’s ascendancy into Heaven suggested by one lost snippet of flute in the first movement achieving its fruition in the full solo of the finale. This effect was certainly ballsy (one of my critic friends called it a gimmick in the lobby afterwards) but it worked very well for me. At least Chailly didn’t try to assume the pose of Calvary for that final high note as some podium interpretive dancers have shamefully done in performances past. One final note on the final notes: the Concertgebouw percussion section employed some exceedingly frightening chimes for the big finish. These were not tubular bells but rather hammered metal parallelograms struck with a large wooden mallet shaped like Fafnir’s meat cleaver. The effect struck just the right unpitched elemental chord, responding to a celestial scale beyond earthly comprehension. A work of Beethovenian genius and a performance to match, this was the finest concert of the entire season. Since I don’t have Mahler’s patience to wait so long for my ultimate reward, I will go and hear it again this Sunday in New Jersey.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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