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The Persistence of Memory

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
11/08/2017 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 3
Mihoko Fujimura (Mezzo-Soprano)
The Collegiate Chorale, Robert Bass (Conductor), MasterVoices, Ted Sperling (Artistic Director), Manhattan Girls Chorus, Michelle Oesterle (Artistic Director), Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta (Music Director)

Z. Mehta (© Israel Philharmonic)

“I wondered if a memory was something you had or something you’d lost.”
Woody Allen, Another Woman

Here’s a game for Mahler aficionados: sing the posthorn solo from the Symphony #3. Can’t do it? Sounds a little off? Confused? Don’t quite remember which note goes where or what the rhythms should be? This is because this amazing representation of memory is slightly different each time that it appears. Although the listener’s perception is that the melody is repeated several times in the third movement, actually it is altered each time and Mahler’s genius is that the offstage memory of the eighteenth century is a little changed during each recall, just as a real memory would be. The orchestra tries to continue with its own musings at one point but the insistent posthorn returns, driving present trivialities in its wake. This is only one of many examples of Mahler’s inclusion of the phenomenon of memory into his compositions. Taking his cue from the music of the Romantics, he creates a universe of nostalgia by judiciously infusing his great works with the persistence of memory.

I remember about 30 years ago I heard maestro Mehta conduct this work with the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall. Except for some shockingly uncharacteristic mistakes from principal hornist Dale Clevenger, this was a solid if not overwhelming performance. Now music director of the Israel Philharmonic – no doubt the first Zoroastrian to hold this venerable position – for over 45 years, Mehta has announced his desire to leave in 2019. The 3M period (Mehta, Masur and Maazel) with the New York Philharmonic was lukewarm at best, embarrassing at worst as all three conductors unveiled much tighter performances with other ensembles before, during and after their stints at their “regular” jobs. Prior to this trio Pierre Boulez was at least provocative and interesting while afterwards Alan Gilbert was an odd combination of mediocrity of performance and significant building of the ensemble. Newcomer Jaap van Zweden will inherit the best “Phil” since Mitropoulos was ousted by Bernstein.

Coming up out of the subway we could sense a palpable frisson on 57th Street where scalpers were charging 200 dollars for upstairs seats. In New York the Israel Philharmonic is a huge draw. Just walk right in...

Those who paid exorbitant fees to street hustlers must have been quite disappointed as Mehta and his forces delivered a substandard product this night. The performance was being recorded and there were microphones everywhere. Very quickly they made their presence felt. In the first movement the concertmaster played his solo parts very quietly, knowing that they could be enhanced when the raw material gets into the recording studio. There was little sense of jollity throughout, little evocation of the frisson of John Philip Sousa.

Mahler suggested an intermission after the first movement but nobody really does that anymore. Instead we were subjected to a Menuetto that was much too fast and had little of the grace of the dance about it. In movement three the side stage door opened so that the posthorn soloist could play unseen offstage. This apparently turned out to be a good system of protection for the lad as he missed far too many notes to deem his effort successful. Thus far a poor performance but nothing compared to what happened next!

Mihoko Fujimura had been sitting patiently in front of the ensemble waiting her turn to perform. However when she arose to sing, there was a gasp from the audience. Ms. Fujimura had a microphone stand directly in front of her and on this device were two microphones, one for the recording and one for straight real-time amplification. When she opened her mouth her voice was extremely loud and electronically artificial. A shock to the system and certainly not what Mahler intended.

I know that we are not supposed to talk about gender any longer but it is hard not to point out that the boys’ chorus that the composer asked for was nowhere to be found in the fifth movement. In place of the evocation of childhood that such a group would have constructed there was a girls’ chorus consisting of much older females. The resulting smooth (and loud!) invocation had none of the charm of the lesser trained male tones that Mahler had especially desired for this normally vivid memory.

There was a lovely moment in the sixth movement. The principal second violin played a nostalgic passage and then the same music was produced by the concertmaster. Since the ensemble was placed antiphonically this passage worked its mnemonic charm. However the seventh movement was jettisoned as the composer’s friends and advisors convinced him that the symphony might be perceived as too long! It saw life as the finale of Mahler’s 4th Symphony.

Surely there is a performance of the Mahler 3 that sticks in your mind’s ear as the best that you have ever heard. Revel in that performance, as this one was very far from the mark. But that older, more charming one...


Fred Kirshnit



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