Go West, Young Man
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 7
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)
“The sun was behind us as we drove, so that we
seemed to be in pursuit of our own shadows.”
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
In the criminally neglected repertoire for concert band, one of the most majestic of pieces is William Schuman’s George Washington Bridge, a dignified evocation of grandeur, stability and man’s extraordinary creative power. Schuman, the ultimate New York insider in the classical world of his day, portrays the landmark as if it stood only as a colossus, a monument existing strictly as a work of Gotham splendor. But the bridge actually leads somewhere and, driving across its prodigious expanse, one feels the excitement of entering a strange and very different environment from that of this most musical of cities (one of its approaches is even named the “Bruckner Expressway”). The first impression for a traveler as he crosses heading west is that on the left is the teeming island of Manhattan while on the right is the beginning of surprisingly beautiful open country. Directly ahead are the New Jersey Palisades, high rocky bluffs of a distinct visual and historic character (it was here where Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel). Crossing this bridge introduces the traveler to the beginning of mainland (and mainstream) America and, without much veering off course, one can drive all the way to San Francisco.
New Jersey is a state with a major identity crisis. In many ways the handmaiden of New York City (even its professional football team is called the “New York” Giants), many of its residents really only sleep there, spending their creative, professional and social lives amongst the Manhattan masses. Its cities have all seen better days and at least one, Newark, is attempting to reassert its character by revamping the previously neglected downtown area. There is now a symphony orchestra in town (under Zdenek Macal) and a significant concert venue called the PAC. Out of hundreds of events, only a handful are classical, but these radiate a very high promise of quality. This evening’s concert is my first foray into this alien territory, but the opportunity to hear Daniel Barenboim conduct Mahler bolstered my courage and inspired me to brave a solo crossing of the Hudson.
Prudential Hall has a fresh, new feel to it. Highly polished wood all around and brass rails in the aisles give the impression of a just purchased piece of furniture. The hall is the suggestion of an ellipse, circular enough to invite the fantasy that the stage and the parquet might rotate upon command. What does indeed move is the engrossing central chandelier, an intersection of many tubes of light which appears to apotheosize immediately before the entrance of the concertmaster. Acoustically, the stage is covered with an imposing system of sound reflectors which juts out very far into the main hall and over the first dozen rows of seats. Five levels of patrons can enjoy this projection and there are even spots above the bafflements where one could attend a performance and neither see nor presumably hear much of anything (these would undoubtedly have been the most desirable tickets for many events that I have attended at other auditoria in recent years). The surrounding area outside is well lit and festive; the staff courteous and enthusiastic. After a wonderful Spanish dinner (an inspired choice since both my companion and Mr. Barenboim are from South America), I settled in to open my first PAC of art.
No essay on nostalgia is as eloquent as the Symphony # 7 of Mahler. I have heard this controversial maestro conduct this piece before and realize that his approach is centered around the melodic as the catalyst of this particular experience of déjà vu. Glacially slow, the Barenboim version remains consistently the enchanted memories of a tortoise, allowing the elongated lyricism to flourish, although perhaps at the expense of some of the visceral excitement. Nothing if not uncompromising, the conductor never unleashes the tempi, even in such passages as the ending of the first movement, keeping his seven member percussion section busy but not frenzied as they inexorably take over the melody and force their particular synaptic content to the fore. This may be an esoteric approach to this most life-affirming of pieces, but it is not wrong-headed. Many beauties heretofore hidden emerge in this process of plumbing for repressed recollections.
The slow approach is particularly effective in the especially sweet andante amoroso. As in the last performance that I attended at Carnegie, Barenboim really nails this most magical of Mahler movements. The combination of solo cello and horn moving so gracefully through their lovely elegiac line while accompanied by individual mandolin and guitar (of which Barenboim reveals each and every pluck) which then leads to trills of the solo flute and clarinet and a final dying away of the image in a morendo progression (again of the guitar), often unheard in other performances, seems almost the trick of a hypnotist. Did we all just dream this last movement? This was some of the most delicate music making that I have heard in many years and was consequently deeply moving.
There were some problems however. The normally spectacular CSO trumpets had another off night (that’s three in a row in one week for me) and I object to the use of a euphonium for the opening solos written for the tenorhorn (the whole movement seems a little too slick as a result), but overall this was a fine, sometimes revelatory performance. Even one of the mishaps turned out fortuitously. In the eerie ”schattenhaft” movement, the spectral figures were augmented at one bloodchilling point by a fierce cry of a banshee as one of the second violins loudly broke a string. It all fit so perfectly that it seemed like just another of Mahler’s unusually percussive string effects (it’s fascinating to chart this music as a whole as a series of percussion figures: not only does the battery take over the melody at various spots, but the strings and the bass drummer often strike the bodies of their instruments for ghostly emphasis). My first pass on the acoustics at Prudential is that this piece, which I heard by the same orchestra only a few months ago, sounded a bit shrill and ratcheted up a notch or two above A440 although the projection of the sound to the seats seemed crystalline. I will reserve judgment on the general sonic environment for at least a few more visits; after this fine evening, I now certainly plan on making New Jersey a regular stop on my concert circuit.
Frederick L. Kirshnit