MAHLER SYMPHONY IN POIGNANT, MOVING PERFORMANCE
By Lawrence Budmen
Few musical scores cover as broad a range of emotions as the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. Optimism and pessimism, anger and love, visions of heaven and the abyss, agony and exultation seem to alternate and overlap in these complex, large scale orchestral works. While Mahler respected the Austro-German symphonic tradition of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, he was breaking new ground. In many ways Mahler set out to reinvent the symphony on a much broader scale with daring tonal and harmonic ambiguity. The "Symphony No.4 in G Major" has always been considered the least typical of Mahler's symphonies. To be sure the score abounds in lilting Viennese melodies and sparkling orchestral writing. Underneath the buoyant effervescence there is a dark, even violent side to this music. Sarcasm and macabre pastiche (as in the devilish violin solos of the second movement) lie close to the music's surface. The performance of this symphony by the New World Symphony on March 29 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach was that rare musical experience - a moment of artistic revelation.
Michael Tilson Thomas has made Mahler's music the centerpiece of his conducting career. He recently won the Classical Grammy award for "Best Orchestral Performance" for his superb recording of the composer's "Symphony No.6" ("Tragic") with the San Francisco Symphony. He brought the same deep understanding of Mahler's uniquely personal musical voice and an almost transcendent eloquence to his performance of the 4th Symphony. He tempered the lightness of the first movement with a strong sense of forward motion. The absolute clarity of the orchestral texture allowed for the sometimes jarring harmonies and raucous percussion effects to be highlighted. Every phrase was part of a long, rounded musical arc. The beautiful playing of the first chair clarinet and flute soloists was a standout. The clarion trumpet solo rang out splendidly. The movement's joyous conclusion emerged as an orchestral sunburst. Tilson Thomas understood the slightly eerie nature of the second movement. The landler had charm, but a dark cloud seemed to be lurking beneath the Viennese dance rhythm. The violin solos had virtuoso power and schmaltz aplenty. The concluding dissonance rang through the hall. This music could only have been written by Mahler.
The conductor highlighted the change in mood of the symphony's final two movements. The Poco adagio was poignant and deeply moving. Rarely has the agony and the ecstasy of this music been so powerfully delineated. The luminous playing of the strings was a joy to hear. The solo cello played with lava toned beauty. Tilson Thomas found the soaring lyricism of this long, heavenly serenade. There was a rapt, almost religious intensity in this performance. This was music making of the highest order that would be difficult to surpass. In the final "Wunderhorn" song, the Chinese soprano Ying Huang sang with musicality and charm in a soaring lyric soprano voice. She found just the right sense of child like naiveté and wonder in the music. The purity of her voice was striking. Every tone connected to a beautiful legato line. She is a singer with a bright future. Tilson Thomas found the dark subtext that dovetails the folk like simplicity of the music. Balances between singer and orchestra were beautifully judged. The concluding soft harp glissando was magical. This was a rare performance indeed! It made one hear thrice familiar music as if for the first time - a true musical voyage of discovery.
Tilson Thomas also presented a rare revival of Paul Hindemith's "Concert Music for Strings and Brass," Opus 50 (1931). Hindemith was a musical Renaissance man - composer, violist, educator, musicologist, and conductor. His interest in Baroque music led him to present the first concerts using period instruments in the early 1950's (long before the original instrument movement took off). That fascination with the Baroque concerto-grosso permeates many of Hindemith's scores. In the "Concert Music" he plays strings and brass as antiphonal echo and response ensembles. There is also a quartet of strings that contrasts with the larger string section. The two movements alternate fast and slow sections. At times the brass have an almost chorale like majesty. The strings have lush melodies and sinewy contrapuntal writing. The concluding section of the score has a wonderfully bluesy theme. The music of several centuries, many nations and eras found expression in Hindemith's masterful compositions. Tilson Thomas evoked both the tough, spiky l930's European sound and the lean neo-Baroque textures of this brilliant score. He understood the driving, jazzy undercurrents perfectly. The orchestra responded with brilliant playing and glowing sonorities. This was a worthy revival of an important score.
Conducting fellow Danail Rachev led a lively, slightly over emphatic performance of Mozart's "Six German Dances," K.509. There was some elegant wind playing and rousing, strong toned brass exaltations. Mozart's music both complemented and contrasted with the Hindemith and Mahler scores. Both Hindemith and Mahler conducted Mozart's music and their knowledge of his works finds expression in their music.
A rare opportunity to hear one of Hindemith's most important scores and a revelatory performance of Mahler's most popular symphony were highlights of a typically stimulating New World Symphony program. Magnificent music making by one of the great Mahler conductors of 21st century set a benchmark standard for this glorious repertoire!