Rocky road. Rebuilding an orchestra is one of the most complex tasks imaginable, requiring delicate negotiations as well as sometimes abrupt firings, a soothing hand with the musicians’ pride but also a new broom to sweep out the old dust. Riccardo Chailly, who at 69 is an eminence on the podium, set out to renew the venerable Leipzig Gewandhaus, historically the orchestra of Mendelssohn. Languishing behind the Iron Curtain after World War II did them no good, however, and where the Dresden Staatskapelle managed miraculously to keep up world-class standards, the Leipzigers weren’t so lucky. I didn’t hear them during their long dark period, but the recordings that came West were nothing special, except in Mendelssohn.
Richard Strauss once wondered about Mahler, to his face I believe, ‘Why don’t you write an opera? You could write such a good opera since you’ve put on so many at the Wiener Staatsoper.’ He didn’t understand and Mahler got pretty angry. In a way Mahler’s symphonies are operas without singers, a sort of total art, in a subjective sense — if that term doesn’t require total sensory stimulation — with vivid use of color and articulate deep expression. The level of abstraction attained by giving up words and human voices enabled him to express more faithfully what really gripped him. The Ninth, like all good symphonies, even more so for Mahler’s but especially in his Ninth, it is a multitude of contents, often all at the same time — ambiguity and paradox seem easily expressed, even refined in Mahler. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s and each of the instrumentalists’ attention and care for each melody, theme, chord and layer in the music make this so clear even as the complexity of the music seems to nourish them; they generously create something fascinating and consoling to listen to — in fact partly because of its complexity it sticks with the listener long afterward.
In a way it is pointless to try to write words on music like this, but here goes anyway. It doesn’t really help to read glib selective quotations from even the composer describing the music, sometimes in a single word, “tragic,” “fate,” “Heldenmord” fail to do justice while missweighing one idea, like a greedy fruit grocer. The Mahlers deep and checkered feelings about his Sixth Symphony are clearer from this quotation from Alma Mahler’s memoirs, even if it does sound ambiguous or contradictory at one level:
The French philosophe Fontanelle famously asked “Sonate, que veux-tu?” in response to the new popularity of a purely instrumental form that asked that the audience do nothing more than sit and listen: “Sonata, what do you want from me?” Hearing Mahler’s extraordinary, gargantuan Third Symphony, one is tempted to repeat the question. What indeed is demanded from the listener by this veritable barrage, this unprecedented outpouring of the full spectra of sounds and noises, human emotional conditions, evocations of life forms from flowers to angels, plumbed philosophical depths, musical allusions encompassing inchoate mutterings, crude military assaults, the most naïve and artless melodies, state-of-the-art sophisticated harmonies, an off-stage post horn, a marriage of a poem by Nietzsche and German folk lyrics, a chorus of boys and women that sings for less than four out of the ninety minutes of the work, pre-echoes of Sousa marches and pop tunes (Sammy Fein’s “I’ll be seeing you…”; Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”; the Beatles “Yesterday”), deliberate references to Beethoven, Wagner, and for all I know, even Brahms? Judging from the enthusiasm of its response last Saturday night, whatever it was that the audience was actually imagining or experiencing provided it with a full measure of gratification. But the question remains, what was the composer after: “Mahler, que veux-tu?”
The news I have been expecting has now officially arrived:
James Levine will withdraw from his concerts with the BSO and Tanglewood Music Center due to further recuperation time needed after recent back surgery.
Michael Tilson Thomas will lead the BSO opening night performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 on July 9, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Mozart’s Requiem on July 16, as well as the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on July 17.
Christoph von Dohnányi will conduct the staged Tanglewood Music Center Production of Strauss’s Ariadne Auf Naxos on August 1 And 2.
Johannes Debus will have his BSO Debut, conudctin Mozart’s The Abduction From Seraglio on July 23
Hans Graf will lead the BSO in program of marches, waltzes, and polkas by the Strauss Family on July 25 .
An announcement about substitute conductor for program of Strauss’s Four Last Songs and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with Soprano Hei-Kyung Hong on July 31 will be forthcoming.
These and other changes have been entered in the season schedule below.
What can one say to this? I left my opening sentence as it was, because Maestro Levine’s cancellations are now routine. I wrote a defense of the Maestro back in February, and that still stands. Levine has improved the orchestra, organized some excellent programs, and conducted some brilliant performances, along with some mediocre ones. There is nothing sadder than being unable to work, especially if it is an artistic vocation to which one is devoted, and Mr. Levine’s health may well be out of his control, but he has disappointed his audiences and his TMC students for too long. He has missed 60% of his BSO engagements this past season, and now there is more. We don’t know what to expect next season, either at the BSO or at the Met, where Levine was to inaugurate a much-publicized new Ring Cycle. There is enough evidence for us to conclude that he is truly physically incapable of pursuing the agenda he has taken up at both institutions. It is time for him to cut back his commitments to the point where he can give his best to his public and his students on a reliable, if not consistent basis.
It was a “playful” afternoon, with so much young talent to admire that the occasional boisterous interpretation seemed completely in line with the mood of the day. Celebrating the spirit in beautiful sounds was as fitting a ceremony as I could imagine on such a stunning Easter Sunday. The presence of performing genius, such as that of Melvin Chen or Dawn Upshaw, made the day even more celebratory. Leon Botstein’s direction allowed these young performers to shine and impress both as individuals performers – since the three pieces sported many solo passages – and, as well, as a polished, cohesive ensemble.
Before getting into the program in detail, it’s worth noting that here again the BSO and New York Philharmonic programs overlap. While Levine in the Berg Three Pieces is returning to repertoire with which he has been closely associated for many years—music inspired by the composer of the main work, Gustav Mahler—Gilbert approached the same work as part of his ongoing exploration of the Second Vienna School, which has enriched his programming throughout the year, and, I’m sure, will continue throughout his career.
Mr. Zander, who leads the Boston Philharmonic, has leveraged his considerable communication and educational skills into creating something beyond the mere making of music.