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.
I’ve been lucky enough to attend plenty of Mahler performances with some of the world’s greatest orchestras. I had only heard the Sixth performed live one other time, when I was in grad school and was present for a Keith Lockhart-led (get the laughs out of your system now) performance with the Utah Symphony. Among the previous performances I’d attended were concerts by these same forces, and my thoughts on both the First and the Fourth were generally quite favorable. This performance of the Sixth was on a whole other level, a nearly perfect takedown of an orchestral heavyweight. I say “nearly” with a specific issue in mind, and it’s one that has generated as much controversy as there can conceivably be when dealing with music, let alone music written more than a century ago.
In a talk from the podium before the music began, Stern explained a bit about the history of the now-infamous Middle Movement Order Battle of the mid-aughts. To sum it up as briefly as possible:
- Mahler wrote the inner movements in Scherzo-Andante order
- At the first rehearsal he freaked out and changed them
- After he was long dead, Alma Mahler sent a telegram (how charming!) in response to and inquiry from Mengelberg indicating that it should be performed Scherzo-Andante
- In 1963, Erwin Ratz released a “Critical Edition” with the Scherzo-Andante order, supporting his argument with literally nothing at all
- Now it’s up for grabs and some people do it one way and some people do it the other
There are countless reasons to perform the work Andante-Scherzo, most of those reasons based in scholarship and slavish devotion to the composer’s intentions, but according to Stern’s talk, his reasons were “musical.” It was presumably those same reasons that led Stern to use three hammerblows in the finale, which is in line with Mahler’s original conception (and is awesome). Why the distinction? And what is the “musical” argument in favor of Andante-Scherzo?
Truth be told, I don’t know what the “musical” argument in favor of Andante-Scherzo is. Every musical instinct I have suggests that Scherzo-Andante makes more sense, from the structure to the key relationships to whatever that vague sense of “flow” that we feel is. By placing the Andante second we lose out on the connection between the opening rhythmic motif of the opening movement and the scherzo, the key relationships between the A minor movements being balanced by the remote E-flat major Andante in between (the first movement and scherzo are roughly equal in size and scope to the finale), and especially the relationship between the Andante and the introduction of the finale, which Mahler cleverly puts in C minor and uses to land us safely back to A minor when the tuba comes in with the primary theme of the movement. Every “logical” argument suggests to me that Mahler wrote it Scherzo-Andante when he had nothing else to consider but the work he was writing alone in a hut somewhere so it’s presumably reasonable to still do it that way.
I mentioned my disappointment in the interpretive choice to Sandy before the concert began and she told me that I was a “music douchebag” and that I should get over it. To this day, that’s the best argument in favor of the Andante-Scherzo ordering I’ve heard, and I can honestly say that I took it to heart. Whatever misgivings I had about that interpretive choice, I had literally zero misgivings about every other interpretive choice – Stern’s reading was as good as any I’ve ever heard.
The opening movement moved along at an ideal pace, fast enough to actually be Allegro energico but not so fast as to obscure the amazing sense of space that’s actually hidden within those layers of intensity. The horns displayed an animalistic power that they would somehow hold throughout the entire performance in seeming defiance of the laws of nature and the feeling in one’s mouth, heading a list of superlative performances that included the always-killer percussion section and what I would consider the high point of the woodwind section as a whole in my time attending concerts here. Perhaps ironically, the part of the movement that stood out most to me was the idyllic cowbell section, which was distant and haunting and full of great color (this is Exhibit A in the case of “Mahler is the greatest orchestrator who ever lived” argument). In spite of the sheer breadth of the movement, the intensity never waned, and the coda was face-melting. I don’t know how European or Japanese audiences handle things, but I think we in America perhaps take the “don’t clap after anything but the end” a bit too far sometimes. There’s a time and a place, I think, where it’s OK (the end of the Andante, for example, is not one of them), and I can’t imagine a much better place where applause is worthy than the end of the first movement. Alas, I am no rebel and sat silent, though excited on the inside and perhaps in the pants area.
The Andante was perfectly paced, gently flowing throughout the band with a hint of extra juice on the F-flat’s that provide color to the melody. The climax of the movement was dripping with emotion, the horns wailing, the strings soaring, and me perhaps getting a little misty here and there. The conclusion was beautifully handled, all soft brushstrokes and gentility, the last bit of respite we would have for 45 minutes. The Scherzo brought the intensity back to the front and center, the low strings and timpani punching the accents with a vengeance. The mixed-meter woodwind trio was stellar, crispy and light and a little creepy. As with the opening movement, the intensity never waned, and the stage was being set for some crazy shit to go down in the finale.
I’m not sure I could even begin to describe the finale properly. It was exhilarating, exhausting, furious, manic, over-the-top, subtle when it counted, and controlled with the kind of totalitarian grip that comes with complete understanding of the message. The hammerblows were nicely handled (I particularly enjoyed the glovework involved with swinging that bad boy), and the entire percussion section was on a higher plane of musical existence throughout the entire movement. The brass were relentless, showcasing plenty of power throughout and tossing in a couple nitrous booster moments to boot. Both the strings and winds were impressively energetic and laid a faultless foundation. There were a few nitpicks to be had (the articulation on the final trombone/tuba chorale was a bit choppy, there were a couple sketchy ensemble spots), but the result was undeniable: this was music-making of the highest order, the sort of thing that happens once a season (if that) when the stakes are high and everyone brings their A+ game.
Among the many great moments of music that night was quite possibly the greatest single musical moment of my listening life. In the finale there is a chorale that is as uncomfortably menacing as it is hopefully triumphant, a chorale that I’ve touched on in this space before. This chorale and the minute or so of music that follows it serves as the first great climax of the movement, the last semblance of optimism before we begin the frenzy of the movement proper. It culminates in an absolutely earth-shattering statement of the symphony’s motto, and it is without question my favorite bit of the whole symphony, if not Mahler’s entire output. For reference, here’s the part I’m talking about (from the 2:47 mark), as seen in this fairly disappointing video of Lenny and Vienna:
Suffice it to say, Stern and Company handled this bit in a way that I would have tried to had I been in possession of some kind of sophisticated technology that would allow me to enter algorithms and shit into it to perfectly execute particular musical sounds, or perhaps that would allow me to understand what algorithms even are. The chorale was heavy and ponderous and rich and mysterious, and the buildup to the first statement of the motto theme was fluid and powerful. The subsequent secondary buildup was equally fluid and powerful, but the resulting climax was unlike anything I’ve ever encountered, set up by an absolutely PERFECT ritardando. I’ll never forget the explosion of sound that erupted from the band, who for a split second turned into a unified atomic bomb capable of untold musical destruction. I had the biggest and probably stupidest-looking grin on my face at that moment, fully appreciative of just how well it was executed, perfect to the point of it being almost comical. Regardless of whatever else happened, that moment will stick with me forever, and that’s a hell of a gift to receive from a musical performance. The fact that everything else was so God damn good just makes it even better.