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My Kingdom for an Overture

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/28/2001 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 6
Dresden Staatskapelle
Giuseppe Sinopoli (conductor)

Back in the days before the pause button on the VCR changed the viewing habits of Americans forever, I was fortunate enough to have friends who were film librarians and had an extensive collection of features which they would show periodically at their home. Having only the one projector, they were forced to suffer through an interval wherein the reel was changed, but strictly enforced the no talking rule in order not to break the mood so painstakingly created by the director. It is a fact of concert life that people will come late to the proceedings and the practice of including an overture at the beginning of a theatrical event or instrumental evening was initiated to make their entry as seamless as possible. In recent years, however, concert planners have consistently buried their heads in the sand, pretending that everyone will show up on time. The inclusion of only one work on a program assures a disruption for those of us who care enough to be punctual, not to mention a laceration of concentration on the part of the musicians. Mahler and Bruckner are most often the victims of this misguided strategy, as their mature works tend to be of the lengthy variety. Several seasons ago an afternoon presented by the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall was ruined by the stampede of Philistines who couldnít rouse themselves in time for a two oíclock concert featuring Lorin Maazelís personal conception of the Mahler 5. Maestro followed the composerís hint literally, dividing the symphony into three sections, the first of which included movements one and two without pause, thus making the latecomersí entrance an hour after the piece had begun. When the offering is the 6th, the disruption is even more disconcerting, the second movementís relentless continuation of the firstís pounding repetitions of inexorable Fate almost too intense for the listener to bear (Mahler even toyed with the idea of reversing the order of movements two and three because this effect was so strong). However, any continuum of misfortune is shattered by the entrance of the buffoons, which should, in my humble opinion, be accompanied by that polka that Stravinsky once wrote for the elephants of the Ringling Brothersí circus. All of this awkwardness could be avoided by the simple inclusion of a curtain raiser by Rossini or von Suppe or another short piece followed by a significant pause (I am particularly partial to the Schoenberg Bach transcriptions and so hereby vote for their insertion into this highly critical spot).

But Giuseppe Sinopoli did not prepare any other music this day and so we all had to suffer the inevitable (perhaps a subtle emblem of Mahlerís ideas about destiny and tragedy?). The resourceful people at Lincoln Center started the concert 14 minutes late, hoping against hope that this would solve the latecomer problem. However, at the end of the first movement there was a very long interval as many entered the hall a full 40 minutes after the announced starting time of 3:00. A very fine performance on stage was assaulted on all sides this day by a rude and crude crowd. Ambient talking was ubiquitous and hardly sotto voce. Many patrons got up and left after and even during movements and the incessant ringing of a cellular phone during the softest part of the beautifully performed third movement was the unkindest cut of all. As for those people who noisily exited right before the last notes of the work, perhaps we would all have been better served if the Dresden percussionist had dismounted from the stage and smote one or two of them with that big hammer.

The actual reading of the Mahler was gorgeous, the ensemble able to produce a magnificent sound consistently applied by almost 100 musicians. However, the same criticism that I had of Friday nightís Beethoven applies. Through the luscious string and crisp wind and brass sound not all of the music emerged. The notes were all there to be sure (and almost never a misplayed one), but some of the bite was consciously excised from the phrasing and the Fate haunting this particular hero seemed not so much cruel as mildly irritating. The slow movement was radiant, the horn solos flawless, the broad sense of string reprise delicious, and yet somehow I didnít fill up with the requisite tears (although, to be fair, my companion did). I have never been able to make heads nor tails out of the finale of this piece and so I do not feel qualified to judge it interpretively, but from a technical standpoint it was quite astounding that there was no loss of intonation after so much blowing and scraping. This orchestra as a unit is one of the most disciplined in the world today.

Obviously, an overture would not have been enough. Later this season the New York Philharmonic is presenting this same symphony accompanied by a set of Strauss songs (and, I assume, an intermission). Perhaps drastic measures like these are necessary to protect the audience from itself.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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