Last Friday night the Kansas City Symphony awoke from a long winter’s nap to perform Mahler’s massive Symphony no. 6. Dubbed “Tragic” by someone who wasn’t Mahler but endorsed by someone who was, the Sixth is an emotional tour-de-force that provides the ultimate musical test for both conductor and orchestra. Like a kid who eats tuna and listens to Mozart the night before the SATs and like the opposite of an Amy Winehouse toxicology report, conductor Michael Stern and the members of the Symphony passed with flying colors. Continue reading
Gustav Mahler said that symphonies should be like the world and that they must embrace everything. This is, of course, statistically impossible (unless I’m missing the bits in Mahler about Hillbilly Hand Fishing), but that doesn’t mean that the percentage that actually did make it in couldn’t include a wide range of musical styles. In his attempt to encompass everything under the sun, Mahler crafted symphonies and song cycles that speak to an ever-increasing group of people. I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that his symphonies are as popular as Beethoven’s now, and if I would said that 65 years ago, I would have been kicked in the groin by men in pork-pie hats.
Gustav Mahler seems like a bit of a dick. Perhaps it’s easy for me to sit here casting judgment from my 6’1’’ body having recently spoken to my all-still-alive siblings and non-alcoholic father while patently not being one of the greatest musical geniuses of all-time, but Mahler seems to have been enough of an asshole to make us consider renaming the Napoleon complex. I don’t know why I’m mentioning this, but I’ve grown weary of the “Alma was a whore and poor Gustav suffered greatly by her infidelity” narrative that seems to be everywhere I turn. Now I’m not saying Alma is a gold digger…but she ain’t messin’ with no broke members of the Viennese cognoscenti circa 1900-1920. But wouldn’t you have blown some architect guy if you spent a prime decade of your life quitting your own music to write manuscript copies for somebody else and then having to put up with their bullshit? I know I would, and I don’t even like buildings and shit. Anyway…
The chorale is a hymn sung in Christian congregations, particularly Protestant denominations. Usually in simple strophic forms or the German Bar (AAB) form commonly found in Bach chorales, they are often harmonized in four or five voices. Over the course of time, it began to include purely instrumental sections of music that maintained the characteristics of the hymns (four voice harmonies, simple tunes, etc.). By way of example, some works with instrumental chorales in them are Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture and Chausson’s Symphony in Bb.
Mahler employed the chorale frequently in his works, both with voice and without, in spite of his seemingly bewildered sense of agnosticism. There is probably at least one in every symphony he wrote if you look hard enough (or not that hard). But there are two that really stand out for me, so let’s put them to the test. Continue reading
In my opinion, the art of the transition is what makes composers composers. Any asshole can write a nice melody. Many assholes can write decent harmony. Several assholes can write exciting rhythms. But few assholes can transition between distinct musical sections in a coherent and impactful way. Even some of the greatest composers occasionally display a lack of transitional aptitude (like the ungainly and blunt-force-trauma sequence extravaganza that Tschaikovsky employs leading to the climax in 1812). But virtually every composer worth his salt is capable of executing a quality transition, which is why it’s worth noting when you find one that’s really magical. Continue reading
The big-time is YouTube, BTW. A fine performance of the Tschaikovsky Pathetique. I used to gig with them, and it was a blast. It looks like most of the band is still the same, which is a tribute to the organization. Kudos to them. Enjoy.
There are lots of orchestral works that make big demands on conductors and performers. A piece like Mahler 7, particularly the Finale, requires an incredible sense of structure and pace from the conductor (not to mention unparalleled virtuosity from the orchestra), and there are dozens and dozens of performances that cannot meet the standard. This, of course, makes the ones that can (I’m looking at you, Kondrashin/Concertgebouw on Tahra) that much more memorable and important.
But out of all these works, I’ve determined the Beethoven Pastoral to be the most difficult for a conductor to “get.” It was only three days ago that I said that I have a problem with Beethoven 6, specifically that it sucks. I would like to amend that statement slightly: Beethoven 6 CAN suck.