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The Young and the Tragic

New York
Riverside Church
10/16/1998 -  
Gustav Mahler: Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen, Symphony #6 in A Minor, "Tragic"
Jessica Miller (mezzo-soprano)
Manhattan Symphony, Glen Cortese (conductor)

Although Mahler conducted the New York Philharmonic in 1909 and 1910 the Symphony #6 was not premiered in America until 1946 under Mitropoulos (Koussevitsky had tried to hold the first performance in Boston in the 1930's, but his German publisher wrote him that the parts had mysteriously disappeared in a fire). Since this gap of forty years, New York has heard many fine performances of the work under Bernstein and Walter but none has been more committed than the reading at Riverside Church on Friday night. One of the great joys of New York is its two fine schools of music, Juilliard and Manhattan. The top orchestras of these two institutions (the Juilliard Orchestra and the Manhattan Symphony) are the major training ground for the symphonic musicians of the new millenium, and the Curtis Institute is just a short drive away in Philadelphia. At all three venues there is a high level of musicianship and an all-consuming drive to "get it right".

The Tragic Symphony was the perfect vehicle for these young musicians. Surprisingly the only symphony of Mahler's that ends in a minor key, the Sixth is filled with episodic descriptions of the travails of life. There is no light or happy movement or even interlude. Not one to back away from controversy, Mr. Cortese reversed the standard order of movements, placing the Andante in the second position and the Scherzo in the third. Although the score is published with the Scherzo second, Mahler sometimes conducted the work with the Andante immediately following the opening Allegro (as does Rattle on recording). I believe that the Scherzo should be performed second, however, for two reasons. First, one of the lasting effects of the Tragic should be its relentlessness, a feeling underscored by the increasing intensity of the pounding opening of the Scherzo immediately following the angst of the Allegro (not to mention that Mahler initially planned the symphony on the model of Beethoven's Ninth). This sense of inevitability is destroyed by interspersing the Andante. Second, the Andante is by far the most impressive movement of the work and it should be saved for as long as possible. However, I recognize the legitimacy of conducting the work this way and I don't think that my opinion has anything to do with recorded tradition because I have listened for years to taped performances of Mitropoulos who also reversed the movement order.

In any event the Andante was beautifully hypnotic, one of those performances when the silence after the movement was magical. Cortese paced the movement extremely well and special mention should go to the principal horn, Cheng Hui Chen, who navigated flawlessly through the heart melting solos. The other movements were also performed skillfully although more of a bite was needed on the attack particularly at those moments when Mahler reintroduces the driving idiom of Fate. The sense of the tragic and constantly serious was highly developed and seemed to be the personal testament of the ensemble as a whole. That expression of total sincerity, only visible on the faces of youth, was not only shared by all of the musicians but seemed to be an emblem for their approach to the work. Manhattan does a Mahler symphony every year at Riverside and the past two have seen the Second and the Third. These were also good performances, however the movements that didn't ring true were the ones that are based on Viennese lilt, a concept apparently foreign to Mr. Cortese, just a young man himself. Perhaps last night was evidence that he has grown as a Mahler conductor, but more likely it is just the absence of humor which makes the Sixth such a strong choice for a youthful orchestra. Daniel Lewis, longtime conductor of the USC Symphony, has said that it is relatively easy to teach young people how to perform a serious composition; what they can't play is a Strauss waltz.

Cortese did a particularly fine job of solving the acoustical problems of the church. The echo effects that were so pleasing in the offstage horns and trumpets of the Second two years ago were just distracting for the Sixth. One of the ways in which the effects were reduced (Riverside is much more listener friendly than either St. John the Divine or Trinity) was by dividing the large percussion section into two groups, one on each side of the stage and all right up front. The Sixth calls for much unusual percussion including untuned bells, a rune (a bundle of sticks), three triangles playing at the same time, cowbells, and an unmetallic hammer blow and it was a sonic pleasure to listen to them cut through the fog at Riverside.

The Wayfarer Songs were first on the program and were ably sung by Ms. Miller, a strong voiced graduate student who shaped all of her notes well and had no trouble being heard over the orchestra. Cortese provided a delicate accompaniment, taking his cue from the gossamer opening of the piece. However, the young singer seemed to only be able to convey a doleful mood, her undoing as an actress the happy second song. Her schoene welt was no brighter than her gluehend messer. Breaking the dramatic illusion, she seemed to be singing in a foreign language. With time I have no doubt of her potential and she will receive good coaching as an actress for I noted that she is a participant in Manhattan's exceptionally impressive and always daring opera company.

The performance will be repeated on Sunday, October 18 at 3 PM with Stephanie Woodling singing the Wayfarer Songs.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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