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Not Such Great Expectations

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
06/17/2004 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 3
Anna Larsson (contralto)
Women of the Westminster Symphonic Choir
American Boychoir
New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

Attending concerts for a living is pretty close to an ideal existence, but it is not for the faint of heart. To do this job well, one must maintain an intimate relationship with critical objectivity, a chimerical and false-faced creature, even on its best of days. Resolutely excising any hidden agendas (which, in this town, usually boil down to “contemporary good, traditional bad”) and dismissing the tribulations of the day before entering the concert hall, the virtuous hero-reviewer is elevated to the status of educated but virgin sponge, ready to relate exactly what he or she hears without baggage. After all, how many convicts have gone to their deaths because the judge had a bad dinner the night before passing sentence?

A vital component of the tabula rasa equation is managing expectations. As longtime observers of Wall Street will note, the most successful heads of corporations are those who minimize in the investment community’s mind the positive results of a given fiscal quarter (Bill Gates is the master of this), aiming for long term support rather than short term profit. For those of us who hear a large number of musical evenings each season, there is nothing worse than anticipating a great performance and receiving only dross (or, even worse, pandering). Conversely, what greater pleasure than being stunned by greatness from an unexpected quarter? The number of soloists or ensembles that consistently deliver a high quality product is surprisingly small. Most have good and bad nights; the trick for the critic is to be as phlegmatic as possible going in.

This reviewer was, therefore, in the ideal state of receptivity for last evening’s rendition of the Symphony # 3 of Gustav Mahler. The New York Philharmonic has done little in the past ten years to make me a believer; although they have risen above their nadir under Pierre Boulez, they have not been either able or inclined to deliver highly satisfying musical performances on a regular basis for a very, very long time. In fact, a search through the archives finds only two outstanding evenings, one each under Masur and Thielemann, reported in the previous six years here at concertonet. Further, the interregnum, now reclassified as a regency with a contract extension until (egad!) 2009, of Lorin Maazel has been extremely disappointing, the fussy self-aggrandizement of this frustrated composer, who never met a phrase he didn’t wish to alter, turning many nights of the classics into embarrassing displays of excess. A recent description in the New York Times of the audience being “pummeled” by Maazel’s Tchaikovsky 6 was spot on. Add to all of this a simply dreadful recent version of this particular Mahler symphony by Eschenbach and the Philadelphia, and my expectations as I walked down the Avery Fisher aisle were just barely on life support.

And, in the main, they were fulfilled. This was a serviceable performance with many individual moments to treasure. Highlights included the clarinet trills of Stanley Drucker, the duet between principal hornist Philip Myers and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow in the first movement and reprised in the last, and the ghostly bridge effects in the viola section that are virtually never heard in live performance. The entire first movement was not so much a march as a parade and therein lay its downfall. After a while, this reviewer realized that he was listening only for the effects, the emotional center of the movement unreachable in this interpretation: the individual trees may have been healthy (although some were distinctly rotting), but the forest itself was lost in the mist. Maazel has been known in previous incarnations for being a glacially slow Mahler conductor, but this night, broadcast live on the radio, he was positively crisp. The ensemble played better than it has for quite some time, but the resulting sound and fury realized little significance.

There were many gaffs as well. The intelligent idea of having the posthorn up in the rafters rather than backstage was more than negated by its practitioner’s sloppy play, the memory of this particular eighteenth century decidedly an unpleasant one. Mr. Maazel asked his brass and horn players to produce at such an exaggeratedly high volume level in the beginning that it became obvious early on that he (and we) would have to pay for his profligacy downstream. The resulting struggle for proper intonation after part one was constant and distracting, rearing its ugly head most monstrously and inopportunely when Swedish contralto Anna Larsson intoned her Nietzschean phrases. With the voice of Erda and the stature of Fasolt, Ms. Larsson, who stood on the floor almost as tall as Maazel on his high podium, fought off the poor performance of her fellows who, ironically, are supposed to be the pitch establishers for this section, producing instead a miasma of melismatic muddle. Under the circumstances, Ms. Larsson’s singing was brilliant, beautiful. The rest of the voices, however, were limp, the “bimm bamms” of the boys and the “three angels” of the women not at all evocative of exultation.

Lorin did behave himself this night and thankfully did not fall into the trap at the beginning of the final adagio. Many conductors start their strings out too loud in this movement, therefore having no place to go. Maazel began quietly enough but much too soon reached the triple forte level and then had to sustain it as best as he could for the duration. What was missing in this superbly sensitive score this evening was any sense of tension, a tautness that should be near to the breaking point by movement’s end. What we received instead was loudness, as in the first movement. There is a disturbing trend among American maestros to pump up the volume in recent years (as well as the pitch beyond A440). If this is designed to appeal to the younger crowd, then this reporter should point out that they are not in the hall to hear it, although any of them walking down Broadway during the first forty-five minutes of last evening’s concert might have heard rumblings like the fading sounds of a car boombox several blocks away. Although there were plenty of positives in this effort, there was one overarching absentee: a sense of refinement.

Say what you wish about Kurt Masur (I certainly did), but he could, as Reggie Jackson used to say, put the asses in the seats. Last night’s crowd hardly amounted to a full house and the Phil in general is experiencing a retrograde Malthusian phenomenon. It would not be fair to put this on the shoulders of Maazel, but he has done little to inspire more robust ticket sales. With his entrenchment now set, it will be some years before we can even speculate on a successor. Perhaps the point is moot; the hall may be totally empty by 2009.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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