The Great Farewell

Dallas, Texas and the surrounding area is a God-forsaken hellscape, and is likely as close to a prison as I’ll ever get. Consequently my eyes have constantly been on the lookout for diversions on the weekends, and one such diversion is the potential allure of the Houston Symphony, a scant 3 or 4 hours away. According to my internet research, they are performing Mahler’s massive Symphony no. 2 this weekend, at least in part because it is the end of Hans Graf’s reign as Music Director. What better way to celebrate one’s tenure than with the “this is a death but we’ll all be resurrected” vibe that isn’t self-indulgent in any way?

Mahler 2 has become an occasion piece, a super-sized version of Night on Bald Mountain or the kick-ass version of Sleigh Ride by Leroy Anderson. It gets trotted out when someone’s retiring or leaving a band or for a season finale spectacular. It shares this distinction with Beethoven 9, a nice bit of completely unintended symmetry for what was Mahler’s obvious symphonic model.

There are obviously many factors at work here, from budgets to schedules to audience feedback, but ultimately it leads to the work in question being corrupted in some way by its continued placement in its designated zone. It’s the functional symphonic equivalent of “selling out,” only the composer (in this case) doesn’t get to make that decision. Mahler’s Second Symphony contains obvious programmatic elements, but a century later its extramusical connotations include more than some program notes and a great story about the Klopstock Ode – now it also means “it’s the end of an era, y’all!”

There are certainly mutations of this same strain of idea. I recall when Barenboim left Chicago he did so by conducting the Ninth Symphonies of Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mahler on consecutive evenings, a self-important vanity fuck of unchecked ego directly in the bullet-riddled corpse of good taste. An important news flash: these bands will be here when you’ve moved on to your next gig, and you will undoubtedly have a next gig. If you’re retiring…I’m perhaps a bit more understanding. If Bernard Haitink decides he wants to retire next month and go out in a blaze of Mahlerian glory as the last thing he EVER conducts on the face of this Earth? There might be a waiver for that.

There are dozens and dozens of works that could suitably meet the following criteria:

is awesome
ends with balls
shows off the band

Any of the symphonies of Brahms or Schumann. Most of the Beethoven symphonies. Half the Shostakovich symphonies. Sinfonia da Requiem. Tschaikovsky 4 or 5. Several works by Ravel. Sibelius Fucking 7.

Presumably if you performed, say, Schumann 2 enough times in a “OH GOD IT’S OVER!” context, perhaps it too would end up with the same association that Mahler 2 now suffers from. It seems unlikely, though, based solely on scope and sheer volume of performers. But let’s be real here: Schumann 2, to use that example, would be a baller ass way to go – it meets all three of the above criteria in fucking spades – and it could just be a cool concert, not a God damn funeral-cum-rebirth. I’m reminded of Leonard Bernstein’s final concert, which he had no control over due to, you know, dying: Four Sea Interludes and Beethoven 7. Awesome, and not laden with bullshit symbolism.

There’s another really easy solution to this problem, too. One of the greatest composers who ever lived wrote a fairly popular symphony that carries an appropriate subtitle and was deliberately composed with the symbolism that this entire exercise seeks to create. Why not turn every conductor’s departure from his or her respective band into a Haydn 45 contest? It shows off the band (admittedly a condensed version relative to our current conception), it ends with balls (not musical ones, but sure as shit extramusical ones), and it is most definitely awesome. I’m gonna keep my fingers crossed for this, and not just from the Baroque and Classical “specialists.”

What a way to go. Into the darkness with the sweet strains of a single violin to take you there. Let’s not overthink things.

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2 thoughts on “The Great Farewell

  1. Great post, Erik. We’re looking forward to an uptick in your output now that you’ve moved.

    You inspired me to check my list of last-hurrah’s from past MD-ships. They were

    GRSO- Schumann 4
    OES- Schumann 2 (is this a pattern?)
    RCCO- Metamorphosen (just the death, no rebirth!)
    LCO- Beethoven 3
    HSO- Franck D minor

    That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have done Mahler 2 or the like on one of those gigs given the chance and budget. Ideally, you want your last piece together to make a statement about your partnership with the orchestra and about what you believe in as a conductor. Schumann 2 at OES was the closest I got to that ideal. The Beethoven was an obvious choice at LCO, too- Beethoven had been at the heart of our work together and the Eroica was the piece we’d played together the most. Franck was more a happy accident.

    On the other hand, my debut with Orchestra of the Swan was…… wait for it…… The Farewell.

    Other great swan songs (no pun intended) one might pull out for a victory lap might include
    Turangalila (then they can’t fire you for bankrupting the band)
    The Ring Cycle (I’ve had fantasies about leaving certain jobs amid an apocalyptic cataclysm).
    Shostakovich 14 (that would show them)
    Matthew Passion (finish with the best piece)

  2. My favorite farewells of farewells has to be George Szell’s final concert ever — Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony performed in Tokyo on May 22, 1970. It’s the apex of modern orchestral performance and music making.

    It’s on youtube, but I have not been successful in tracking down a copy of the Sony CD.

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