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Strings Attached

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/16/1999 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #6
Philadelphia Orchestra
James Conlon (conductor)

The Philadelphia Orchestra is proud of its exceptional string sound, nurtured over many years by such luminaries as Stokowski, Ormandy and Muti, and this is as it should be. The orchestra management takes drastic steps to keep this silken commodity the prime feature of the ensemble, even to the point of not allowing risers on the stage during performance so that only the string players are visible to the bulk of the audience. This emphasis on one section works well enough for eighteenth century music as well as the lush works of the nineteenth and early twentieth (I heard a gorgeous Rachmaninoff Symphony #2 a few years ago) but creates a serious musical imbalance in a piece which relies heavily on brassy effects as last night's disappointing performance of the Mahler "Tragic" Symphony made all too clear. It would be natural for the winds and brass to be resentful to toil away in acoustical and (to all but the people in the balcony) visual anonymity and they all certainly needed to play much louder than intonationally secure to be heard because of their entombment behind the "Philadelphia sound".

Last night's performance was dull from the start. There was no bite to the opening steady drumbeat of fate that identifies this piece as Mahler's most dark (the only one of his symphonies to end in a minor key) and the group seemed to be only going through the motions under this last minute substitute for the king of the no shows, Franz Welser-Moest, who could have had the music directorship in the city of brotherly love if only he would show up once in a while. Conlon seemed to have no direction to his Mahler, the only gesture of any import being to try and hush the strings a little every now and then. From the first the trumpets were overblowing and almost immediately were out of tune, a situation not corrected throughout the evening. Of course, the string sound was fabulous but it contrasted the poor wind effort so drastically that I was put in mind of that old John Cage piece where he played different radio stations on stage at the same time.

Mahler 6 is nothing if not intense and one of the most electrifying moments is the start of the second movement, a relentless reprise of the tension of the opening of the work as a whole. This uncompromising effect was ruined, however, because Conlon had to wait many minutes for the latecomers to be seated (Mahler built this situation into his Symphonies #2&3 with long pauses suggested after their respective first movements, but certainly not the 6th). This is ultimately not Conlon's fault as the substitute, but what was Welser-Moest thinking? At one hour and twenty minutes this was the shortest concert of the year. Couldn't they have at least played a Webern or something to raise the curtain and seat the boors who are just too busy to come on time?

The jewel of the evening was the Andante. Here the great string tone was welcome and the movement was played to nearly lovely perfection. Again though, the brass disappointed. Although there were no mistakes or intonation problems, the horn solos, normally so heartbreaking, were strangely unemotional and matter of fact. However, the hypnotic effect of this movement played by a great string section was undeniable.

Except that now Conlon decides to jump right into the next movement! Leaving little more than a caesura, he launched right in to the gargantuan finale, ruining the contemplative effect of silence that should linger after the great slow movement. Conlon could learn a thing or two from Glen Cortese, who conducted the same piece with his Manhattan School students earlier this season. Considering the youth of the ensemble, this performance at Riverside Church was far and away the better of the two. The Philadelphia finale featured some of the most amateurish brass playing that I have heard in a long time, the "naked" passages embarrasingly out of tune and played much too loudly, sacrificing all aspects of musicality.

The other distraction was the percussion parade. The 6th has a complex percussion part, with exotic instruments like the rune (a bundle of sticks used to beat both the heads and the body of the base drum) and a very significant thematic role for the Herdengloecke (unpitched cowbells). The Philadelphians made good use of the offstage effects, playing the cowbells in the wings in the first movement so that they sounded very far away (of course so did the brass for other reasons) and onstage during the third so that it seemed that the herd was actually passing into infinity (Mahler's image of the death of the nineteenth century). However, since both the cow and tubular bells were offstage, the percussionists were constantly leaving their posts and then returning, creating a significant visual diversion. At the prices that they charge at Carnegie Hall, couldn't they afford to hire one more union musician? In the last movement two of the players walked off the stage and by then I was ready to join them. Such a normally distinguished ensemble should be ashamed of the poor quality of this askew performance.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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