Tag Archives: Mahler’s 2nd

Music, Moving Invisible Internal Objects

During the rehearsal — not even the performance! — of the Mahler 2 symphony this morning, despite having studied the piece and performed it several times… there was a moment where I felt tears glistening in my eyes.  It’s in the 5th movement, during the “sunrise,” where the music swells and blossoms forward and hugs everyone and says it’s all right, it’s amazing isn’t it, there’s beauty and joy everywhere, you are loved.  (Here’s a clip, though as usual, a recording doesn’t do it justice.)

It reminds me of a great story from a welcome address to freshman parents at Boston Conservatory, given by Karl Paulnack, the pianist and director of the music division there.  He pointed out that the Greeks related Music and Astronomy, saying that while Astronomy may be about the relationship between large objects such as planets, Music “is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.”  He then told this story, which I’ve condensed here:

The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND […] We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. […]

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man was clearly a soldier — even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

[…] For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

I look forward to connecting with our audiences over the next few days.

Reviews of Mahler 2nd

The reviews are in!  And they’re pretty darn glowing.  Well, mostly.

Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe praised Michael Tilson Thomas for his ability to draw different emotional contexts out of the various movements.  About us, he wrote:

Mahler’s finale is one of the most memorable in his oeuvre, full of hair-raising music depicting the end of days, but also containing some of his most spellbindingly quiet passages, as in the hushed first entrances of the enormous chorus. The TFC here sounded magnificent, as it did singing at full throttle.

Lloyd Schwartz of the Boston Phoenix spent most of his digital ink talking about the intricacies of the performance, with more (well-deserved) praise for Stephanie Blythe’s voice than for the chorus itself.

Clarence Fanto of  Berkshire Living was more effusive, saying it was no surprise that MTT’s interpretation would be a “magnificent, insightful, thoughtful and viscerally thrilling performance.”

Superlatives abound whenever John Oliver’s chorus performs; the singers’ hushed entrance in the final movement (mysterious, very slow and a triple-pianissimo as Mahler instructed) was as delicate yet well-articulated as imaginable. When Tilson Thomas urged them on to sing triple-forte for the final lines of Mahler’s text (“Die shall I in order to live…”), their exclamation of joyous redemption lifted the rafters skyward.

The performance was so tightly focused and unblemished technically — even the off-stage brasses and the distant marching band — that an instant CD or MP3 download could be released with no touchups required. Some of us would gladly pay for the privilege of owning a memento of this memorable event.

Well, then!

Meanwhile, the more austere Berkshire Eagle was very harshly critical, calling the performance a “bumpy ride” and “idiosyncratic.”  The writer acknowledge MTT’s style as closer to Bernstein’s, but derided him for lacking Bernstein’s “structural coherence and molded sound.”  It sounds like Andrew Pincus was lashing out for the absence of James Levine, blaming the performance on “a visiting conductor” and comparing MTT’s “swirling, stabbing demands” unfavorably to “Levine’s more measured, though no less visceral, approach.”  Time to get over it, people!  We may not see James “J.D. Drew” Levine again.  About us, he acknowledged:

From its hushed first entry – one of the most stunning moments in all music – the Tanglewood Festival Chorus rose to almighty thunder in the concluding ode.

And because Tanglewood is regarded as a New York activity as much as a Boston one (you should’ve heard the concert-goer who told me afterwards that the performance was “auw’asum“), the New York Times weighed in too. Anthony Tommasini wrote a lot about the absence of James Levine, but he also delved into the performance.  He praised MTT for bringing “lucid textures and structural coherence” to the otherwise disparate movements of the work.  About us, he gave a passing of-course-they-were-good nod of appreciation:

[MTT] drew brilliant playing from the orchestra, magisterial singing from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and inspired performances from the two vocal soloists […]  In the “Resurrection” poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, with Mahler’s added verses, the always impressive Tanglewood Festival Chorus (directed by John Oliver) sang with robust sound and sensitivity.

A New York Times blog post by Daniel Wakin included snippets of an interview with MTT about how he chose to interpret the piece, but the interesting thing there are the comments by the musical literati.  Some called MTT’s Mahler “the best there is” and others condemned him for making changes to the composer’s notes or called his conducting style superficial and showy.

Quite a roundup.  My thoughts on the performance will follow in the next post.

The most orgasmic 5 minutes of choral music ever

Got your attention?  Did I grab a few search engines somewhere? Well there’s no actual sexual content here.  Just my undying admiration for the last 5 minutes of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

I have a lot of favorite choral moments from my singing history.  The 4th day of In the Beginning.  The Warlich moment in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, or the last sung phrase of the MacMillan Passion we recently performed. And, hell, let’s just thrown in pretty much all of the Verdi Requiem and the Brahms Requiem.  And there’s a vast library of choral music I haven’t sung yet (you know… being just a bass and all.)  But the ending of the Mahler is still my all-time favorite moment in choral singing.  Really, just listen…

I love love LOVE everything about this piece.  Some singers like to complain that we only sing for the last 10 minutes or so of the piece, in the fourth movement, when everything is all over.  Not me.  I wish I could sing this piece every weekend.  It encapsulates some of the greatest parts of being a choral singer.  The full dynamic range, from ppp to fff (this clips is just the fff part).  The full note range for a bass, from a low almost impossible to sing B-flat up to the high G above middle C that represents tenor territory.  (Thank goodness the low B-flat is ppp and the high G is fff.)  The orchestra throwing in everything they got, with bells loco and the brass fanfares soaring over everyone’s heads.  The quiet parts set up the loud parts.

The best part, by far, is standing in the middle of it all.  Singers are totally taken along for the ride.  The hair stands up on the back of your neck.  It’s impossible NOT to feel passion stirring within you as you lustily sing.  This is the orgasmic part – this steady build up of sound, layer upon layer, wave upon wave, as the chorus builds up to the final triumphant proclamation, WE WILL RISE AGAIN!   Auferstehn!  Ja, auferstehn! I get goosebumps even listening to a recording.

Oh, and no recording does justice to Mahler’s 2nd, either.  Most have to do some sort of dynamic compression, boosting the quiet and tempering the loud to save your speakers.  Even still, you’re always fiddling with the volume knob, straining to hear the quiet initial chorus entrance, and trying not to be blown away by the majesty of the piece’s conclusion.  It’s an avalanche of sound that can’t be represented by any recording, only by BEING there in the audience, or (better yet) on the risers.