Magnificent Mahler

(Steve J. Sherman)
An unlovely contemporary piece, opening the Carnegie Hall program, set the stage for Mahler’s triumph.

When Andris Nelsons brought the Boston Symphony to New York to perform Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony last spring, he gave us the impression that he might be the best conductor in the world, leading the best orchestra. Last week, he returned to Carnegie Hall with a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony that was no less impressive.

It’s not entirely clear how Nelsons achieves his exceptional control over the orchestra: On the podium, his movements are rapid and precise, but he is nowhere near as graceful or as legible as Iván Fischer. However he does it, the results are indisputable. For clarity, range of expression, nuance, and sheer musicality, there is no orchestra today that can beat the Boston Symphony.

Our only wish is that Nelsons would bring us more Beethoven and less contemporary music, but that wish extends to all conductors: Contemporary music is not a diamond in the rough or an acquired taste, nor is it music written by and for sophisticates. It is simply an elaborate practical joke, perpetrated by the music industry on itself. Critics are much to blame for praising and demanding more of what they know the audience hates. And conductors, including our own Jaap van Zweden, have alluded to a certain pressure to perform it anyway.

The “Aerial” trumpet concerto by HK Gruber, which opened the program, is in this category: It had numerous interesting passages, suggestive and pregnant with musical potential. The potential remained potential, however, and the audience was frustrated. The soloist, Håkan Hardenberger, is an extraordinary musician who managed remarkably well with all the unnecessary changes of instrument: from trumpet to “cow horn” to piccolo trumpet to trumpet and back again. It was truly impressive — amazing — to watch Hardenberger extract the diatonic scale from what many New Yorkers will recognize as essentially a shofar. He changed notes by manipulating his hand position over the end of the horn, almost in the style of a French hornist.

But Hardenberger might just have well played a standard trumpet all the way through, played with one type of mute instead of several, and forgone the closing gesture in which he strode off into the orchestra to blow his closing note into the open lid of the piano as though it were a gigantic tissue. A great composer doesn’t need these tricks any more than a great painter needs a hundred different tubes of paint and a thousand brushes. It savors a little of a small boy alone in a hotel room pressing all the buttons on the phone just because he can’t think what else to do. Gruber’s piece was very interesting indeed. But what is interesting is never beautiful.

Mahler is no stranger to beauty — on the contrary, he sometimes luxuriates too much in the sensual beauty available from a symphony orchestra. He writes music like a man who always knows exactly how he’s feeling and is fascinated by that more than anything else. If you were to ask after Mahler’s health, he’d probably tell you that he was doing all right now, but he was worried a little earlier on that he might’ve been getting a cold.

His music is bursting with ideas that he barely contains, being always subject to a new distraction while still thinking a previous thought. He may then draw these intertwining thoughts out to such length that they continue interminably, like a Victorian railway station. Following Mahler around a theme reminds me of a frequent childhood occurrence when my mother, an architect, would drive “the long way around” to show me the best features of all the little local houses: It’s beautiful, as long as you’re in no hurry to get anywhere.

It is best not to be in a hurry with Mahler: The payoff is impressive. There are moments of great surprise and delight, as in the scherzo when the pizzicato theme gradually spreads throughout the strings. There is sentimental but nonetheless lovely contemplation in the adagietto fourth movement — Mahler’s love song to his wife, and his most famous and popular achievement. And there is unparalleled, turbulent, triumphant excitement with the explosion of brass in the last two minutes of the finale. (Exactly the sort of excitement which was felt at the outset of the French Revolution, also for two minutes.)

Mahler does talk too much, and too long, but he just as definitely has something to say. In the hands of the Boston Symphony, Mahler is magnificent. The only serious challenge to Boston’s preeminence can be expected this spring when the Philadelphia Orchestra returns to Carnegie with a Mendelssohn-Schubert program. But this will be a difficult act to follow, thanks to Andris Nelsons.


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