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Mahler for Remembrance

New York
Avery Fischer Hall, Lincoln Center
09/10/2011 -  & September 22, 24, 27, 2011
A concert for New York: In remembrance and renewal on the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (“Resurrection”)

Dorothea Röschmann (Soprano), Michelle DeYoung (Mezzo-Soprano)
New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (Director), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor)

J. Flummerfelt (© Courtesy of the artist)

Treasonous as it may sound, our Star-Spangled Banner is vocally the most atrocious, unsingable national anthem in existence. The most patriotic Tea Party people turn into hoarse banshees when attempting its almost two-octave range.

So when this special Nine-Eleven concert started with the audience rising, and the orchestra plunging down its first triad, I felt agony. Except–except!!–that the New York Choral Artists are the opposite of amateurs. Under Joseph Flummerfelt, their vocalization of the Star-Spangled Banner became a thing of beauty, quiet fervor, and, yes, glory as well.

That of course boded well for this most special concert. Inside, the usual New York Philharmonic audience listened carefully enough to Mahler’s Second Symphony, with not too much of the de rigueur coughing, people marching out and applause between movements. (Or in one horrible case, clapping in the middle of the first movement, Dada style.)

Outside, the Lincoln Park courtyard around the fountain was packed to capacity with listeners watching the giant screen and listening to Alan Gilbert offering a splendid performance of this most splendid piece. They were entranced, as they should have been, and their absolute silence for this frequently enigmatic work was a tribute to the Maestro as well as Mahler.

Was this Mahler the “right” piece for this tenth anniversary? It was the reverse of what the Phil played ten years ago. The Brahms Requiem is philosophical, secular, and above all consoling. Today, we see that traumatic event not as a single tragedy, but a singular circumstance which set off the most complex events in American history. Solace is not the answer any more. Something more theatrical, more blatantly emotional could have been the answer.

Assuming that answers are possible.

Unlike the purely emotional Eighth, the Second Symphony is filled with the same conundrums that we experience today. Frightening marches interrupted by gentle chorales, airy little tunes cut off by growling brass and ominous timpani. The last movement has the Olympian finish that moves every audience.

Accolades for the youthful Mr. Gilbert’s Mahler are not universal yet, but his take last night, after a moving verbal introduction, was an excellent, if hardly daring experience. The Phil is used to playing Mahler, and not a single brass or wind glitch was heard.

Mr. Gilbert played the first movement with an unyielding brittle sound, the basses cutting off each measure, the winds not lyrical but sharp. The horn and strings provided a short respite, but so tough were those chords before the development that the audience burst into misguided applause.

The next movement had a kind of charm, and Mr. Gilbert played it with Mendelssohnian lightness. One can’t listen to any measures of the third movement without thinking of Luciano Berio’s rendition, replete with Samuel Beckett’s command to “Go on.Go on. Call that going? Call that on?”

It was time for Michelle DeYoung’s aria. It was sung with lovely tones, but neither she nor Mr. Gilbert achieved that saintly, almost childish tone. It was fine music, not the best Mahler. Dorothea Röschmann, the soprano soloist soared sweetly, preparing the way for Mr. Flummerfelt’s New York Choral Artists.

The balance was lovely, orchestra and chorus rose with inexorable breadth and yes, the sense of resurrection.

Mahler never called this the “Resurrection” symphony, but once described it that way. Then again, as the program explained, Mahler felt that his verbal description was as useless as God trying to describe the world.
So Gustav Mahler compares himself, favorably, to God. Now that is what even he might call chuzpah. Then again, at least we have the heavenly experience of hearing Mahler. His comparison might be less than odious.

Harry Rolnick



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