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My Dinner With Andrew

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/23/2004 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 3
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo)
Women of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale
American Boy Choir
Philadelphia Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

A Month at Carnegie Hall

Part Thirteen

The Amazing Transparent Man

“I am glad to know that there are some people in Europe who will
be able to hear this performance of the Eighth Symphony,
coming to them by the free radio of America. I hope that word will
get around from them to other music lovers that we, here, seek to
preserve their cultural tradition for them until such a time as they
can again live and breathe as free men.”

Fiorello La Guardia, from an ABC
radio broadcast of April 12, 1942

It is difficult not to think about Mahler when on a walk to Carnegie Hall. En route, one passes the imposing structure which replaced the residence where the great man lived during his all too brief time at the Met and the Philharmonic. The site of the New Netherland Hotel (now the rebuilt Sherry Netherland) at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South is only two blocks from Carnegie where the meister held forth as the leader of New York’s still developing orchestra and only a short carriage ride to the old opera house where he helped to establish a new tradition of excellence in the German repertoire. The carriages are still lined up there, but their peregrinations are now profoundly different. Mahler was ill in those days (he died in 1911), and I often feel an overwhelming sense of loss when coming upon the distinctive 1927 building’s unique spire.

Mahler was not as revolutionary harmonically as many people seem to think, following instead rather logically an evolutionary trail blazed by his beloved Wagner and his mentor Bruckner, but he was profoundly innovative and instrumental in turning the symphonic form into something deeply personal, plunging boldly into the inner space of mind and personality previously unexplored (think, for example, of the neurasthenic third movement of the 7th Symphony). He is as far from Brahmsian detachment as it was possible for any Viennese of the fin-de-siecle period to even contemplate. Those of us who adore his music point out the disarmingly intimate emotional spectrum laid bare before our ears as testament to the composer’s profound humanity. But opponents feel justified in presenting this same brave exposure as maudlin, banal (a word often used in a short description of Mahler, and not just in the anti-Semitic press that dogged him while at the Vienna Opera), heart firmly attached to sleeve. Back in the early 1960’s, when Bernstein was capturing a wider audience for this amazing body of work, many of my own friends and colleagues dismissed these long psychodramatic musings as “movie music”. Mahler was ultimately the victim of his own powerful local Austrian influence, as many who revered him ended up in Hollywood thanks to Adolf Hitler.

The Philadelphia Orchestra must be the last ensemble in America never to have performed a cycle of Mahler symphonies. New maestro Christoph Eschenbach is now remedying this oversight, launching his traversal with the mighty Third. Skepticism runs high in my house about this particular venture. Here’s what I wrote in 2001, when this particular conductor guested with the New York Phil:

“Eschenbach exaggerated the effects in the Mahler so foolishly that he
forgot the basic premise that for color to serve any purpose it must have
something to modify. This performance was like one of those mediocre
paintings which art historians have found covers a rare masterwork
underneath, only we were experiencing it before the restorers had begun
to remove the ugly veneer.”

The band from Philadelphia is a much more professional one than the local Phil, and so Eschenbach fared better this evening, but not as well as one would have hoped. The individual players certainly performed admirably in the first movement, so vast that it serves as the entire Part I of this gigantic symphony, but maestro’s funereal pace took much of the wind out of Mahler’s sails. Gone was the spirit of outdoor exhilaration, the freewheeling feel of a broad landscape. Also missing was the composer’s specifically instructed march tempo: in Eschenbach’s world, summer comes shuffling in. I know that this conductor reads German; perhaps Mahler’s written direction nicht schleppend was left off of his copy of the score. Without the breezy élan, the overlaying of melody upon melody (Mahler’s image of memory) was simply a piling up of rather pedestrian building blocks, the sort of unfocused conducting that leads critics to use pejoratives like banal when describing this remarkably inventive tone artist. The great reprise expressed little triumph or joy.

The second part was consistent with the dullness of the first, with the added problem of steadily decreasing intonational quality. The 3rd is a bear for the brass players, who were excellent in the beginning, but succumbed rather early to gliding and sliding around the notes rather than hitting them in their center. This relativism of pitch might have wrought havoc on a lesser singer, but Lorraine Hunt Lieberson intoned her part in the fourth movement majestically from the very back of the stage. Standing extremely erect, she reminded this reviewer of a ship’s captain lashed to the mast in bad weather, coming through the out of tune storm of her accompaniment with dignity, power and grace. By this time in the proceedings, many in the orchestra were floundering for correct pitch; this would not have happened under Sawallisch.

Sunday’s superb choral concert may have raised the bar a bit for me, but the women and boys in the fifth movement never seemed to capture the spirit of what they were singing, the “bimm-bamms” flabby, the interplay between high and low, left and right muddy rather than staccato. And even the fabulous Philadelphia strings could not save the usually glorious finale. Although they played beautifully, once again the lushness and phrasing were adversely affected by the snail’s metronome marking. Eschenbach milked this last movement shamelessly, undoubtedly practicing each gesture in front of a mirror. He does look good up there, Yul Brynner in “Once More With Feeling”, however, isn’t it the sound that counts? The “I’ll Be Seeing You” theme was drawn out into an almost unrecognizable length of pulled taffy: even Liberace performed it less histrionically.

Christoph Eschenbach is indeed a fine musician, pianist and conductor. When he leads the Orchestre de Paris, he always leaves one feeling challenged and edified. However, his tenure so far in Philadelphia has not inspired confidence. Earlier this year, his Turangalila was as leaden as this current performance, described by one patron last evening as “playing in molasses”. Although it is much too early to panic, the fact that Philadelphia players would sound so sloppy by a symphony’s end is distressing and unheard since before Stokowski. Perhaps Mahler is simply not Herr Eschenbach’s cup of tea; if so, the odometer on the full cycle will have many rocky miles to record. At just a tad under two hours, this was the longest Mahler 3 in memory, and seemed even longer.

Carnegie offers a tour of its historic facility and one afternoon a few years ago I went along. Since the hall is closed to the public during this time, there was no need for the guide to carry a beribboned stick or umbrella, but otherwise, the tour is similar to those at the Vatican or Coliseum. Having been raised in Hartford, Connecticut, I had a good friend who was for years the guide to the Mark Twain house there. Expertly capturing his wry spirit, she began her talk by stating that Mr. Clemens was always very proud of the fact that he was born when Hailey’s comet appeared in the night sky and died when it returned 87 years later. No one ever questioned this introduction. Thinking of my old chum, I was thoroughly enjoying my supervised trip down musical memory lane and listening intently to every word until I was given pause when we stopped before the portrait of Mahler in its place of honor. Much to my chagrin, I was the only person on the tour who had ever even heard of him. Perhaps that is the source of my melancholy when passing the newer hotel. With the erosion of the importance of classical music in modern American life, I wonder how soon these matters will pass from the realm of architecture to that of archaeology.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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