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Playing Ketchup

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/17/2004 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 7
Pittsburgh Symphony
Mariss Jansons (conductor)

The news from Pittsburgh is bad. Faced with declining audiences that made Heinz Hall resemble the Igloo, the symphony management’s knee-jerk reaction was to increase the number of pops concerts for this season from 52 to 72 and to shorten the weekly schedule of concerts of serious music to only two weekend nights. Much of the orchestra’s Heinz family support money ended up in the hands of some woman from Mozambique. And then, the unkindest cut of all: music director Mariss Jansons, who, in his early sixties, is the youngest conductor alive today deserving of the adjective great, announced his intentions of moving back to Europe permanently, taking over not one but two of the world’s finest ensembles and leaving the three rivers of western Pennsylvania forever. The timing is especially unfortunate because under this supremely professional Latvian, who grew up in a fine conductor’s house, the ensemble has risen to a level of expressivity, crispness and discipline that surpasses even the glorious years under Herr Doktor Steinberg. At a time when American orchestras are struggling with issues of quality, repertoire and relevance, the departure of one of our finest caretakers is monumentally disheartening.

There is, however, a ray of hope. Apparently, the board of directors of the symphony has consciously made a decision to take as much time as necessary in order to hire the right type of music director, rather than rush into a bidding war for a big international name. In the interim, two highly respected men have been plucked from the unemployment line to keep the ensemble focused. Both Christoph von Dohnanyi and Charles Dutoit will assume prominent roles during this interregnum, especially in the ambassadorial position of guest conductor on tours, Monsieur Dutoit scheduled to bring the group to Carnegie next season. Two early job applicants, David Zinman and Andrew Davis, were, by all accounts, unimpressive in their audition concerts and a third, David Robertson, signed on in St. Louis instead (this may be a better fit, as educational outreach is more of a priority there; Robertson might have just the right charismatic way about him for successful proselytizing). We went through this carousel ride in New York just recently but ended up with Maazel (in the incestuous world of musical maestros, Maazel used to run Pittsburgh and one of Jansons’ new posts is the Bavarian Radio, abandoned by Maazel so that he could concentrate on New York, a position for which Jansons was on the short list!); let’s hope that the Pittsburghers end up with the brass (or would it be, in their case, steel?) ring.

Certainly the new man will have a hard act to follow. Last evening’s performance of the Symphony # 7 of Mahler was an object lesson in exhibiting the breadth of a large canvas while not neglecting any of the plethora of detail. This reviewer knew even before the outset that this was to be a stellar effort; when I entered the hall I noted the positioning of guitarist Irvin Kauffman, who was correctly seated right up front. It was apparent that this maestro had considered long and hard about how best to balance the delicate timbres of the fourth movement serenade. Jansons delivered a Langsam-Allegro of exceptional sweep and power, notable for its high energy and clipped, staccato phrasing. During the long interval (allowing late-comers to arrive) between the first two sections, a critic friend leaned over to me and whispered that it would be very difficult for them to keep up this level of intensity throughout the entire evening. Difficult yes; impossible, no.

If I have a quibble with this rendition, it was in the second movement. Maestro did a superb job of capturing the shuffling “Night Watch” march as well as the complex Austrian laendler rhythm, that unique upper regional gait of almost clumsy heavy-footedness associated with clog dancing and inspired by Mahler’s mentor Anton Bruckner, but did not then properly contrast them with the gliding waltz meant to be their concave mirrored partner. In fact, this entire performance of Mahler was a bit too cosmopolitan; one wished for a little more Viennese provincialism. There were also moments of raggedness in the brass, but, thankfully, they lasted only for a fleeting interval.

The polished Pittsburgh precision dazzled in the Schattenhaft, the literal and figurative centerpiece of this version, played so crisply and perfectly that I am hard pressed to conjure up a better run-through, even in the bulging discography of this oft-recorded composer. The next generation of conductors in Vienna included three who worked directly with Mahler: Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer and Anton von Webern. It was Webern who was evoked in this whirling dervish version of high profile pointillism (think of the third of the Five Movements for String Quartet, for example).

Walter describes the middle three movements of the Seventh as one large intermezzo and, taken as one movement, it is recollection journeying from anxiety to tranquility. If there was a high point in this splendid realization, it was undoubtedly this lovely Andante amoroso. Not only were guitar and mandolin front and center both physically and acoustically, but the interplay of dotted rhythm and legato line (perhaps the skeleton key for the entire Mahler oeuvre) was delicious. For a brief moment I thought that we had switched to the last movement of the Symphony # 4, because hearing those last flute and clarinet trills and each and every utterance of the morendo from the guitar transported this listener directly into Heaven.

That intensity level not only never flagged, but actually received a boost of adrenaline as the tympanist introduced a seemingly unsustainable tempo for the glorious finale. This is one of the most life-affirming movements in all of music, an hommage to its counterpart in the ”Great” C Major, and the Pittsburghers played it for all that it was worth, transferring their own beaming facial expressions of sheer delight onto the visages of those of us in the crowd (this is not the first time that I have observed this strange phenomenon with this group: they actually enjoy working with their leader!). As in the last 47 measures of the first movement, this performance was especially notable for its remarkable clarity: one could hear everything in this reading, and without any high priced recording engineer providing the exclamation marks. For this particular ensemble at this particular time in their evolution, this was as good as it gets.

Fans of the old TV show Star Trek will remember that the crew of the USS Enterprise operated under what was known as the Prime Directive. They were never supposed to influence or change the course of events in the civilizations that they were sent to study (of course, they violated the directive every week, otherwise there would have been no plot). We critics also have a similar doctrine: never interfere with the reaction of an audience by expressing yourself too ostentatiously, simply sit back and observe. Oh, what the hell, last night the first person on his feet screaming bravo was me.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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