Last month I wept my way through the 9th Symphony of Anton Bruckner in Chicago. Last Saturday I strapped myself in for the other emotionally draining 9th Symphony of the decades bridging the gap of the 20th century back at “home,” a term I find myself using with more and more mental air quotes. This was the fourth Mahler symphony I’ve heard the local band and conductor Michael Stern perform (along with numbers 1, 4, and 6). As a matter of general principle I would say that my impression of Stern’s Mahler conducting is quite favorable, and the orchestra has largely proven themselves worthy of high praise. The performance of the 9th may have been the weakest of the four, but that is not to suggest that it was without merit.
I’ve referenced a famous performance of Lenny Bernstein conducting the Caucasian Sausagefest Philharmonic in Mahler 7 that goes through an artistic progression of ragged to resplendent or some other bullshit that starts with the same letter multiple times in this space. It’s obviously stuck with me on some level, and for good reason: by the end of the piece the entire outfit has morphed into a merciless killing machine of tempo shifts and majestic colors. The performance that Maestro Stern led on Saturday took on a roughly similar trajectory to my ears, only this time the transformation was into merciful assisted suicide machine of restraint.
The opening movement, which somehow (spoiler alert!) isn’t going to crack my top 10 symphony movements countdown, might just be the hardest thing anyone ever wrote for an orchestra. It’s absolute insanity how much music is contained in this music – so many moving lines and changing textures – and keeping it all together cohesively is challenge enough to create great difficulty in making something more out of it. It definitely lacked forward momentum in spite of the rapid figurations constantly going on, and there were a few key spots that failed to deliver the sizzle necessary to really carry the emotional weight as much as it needs to be. I find that this movement, as much as anything Mahler ever wrote (including the opening movement of the 5th), demands a trumpet player who possesses the extra gear of sound that can singlehandedly bury the entire band if given the high sign to do so. The trumpet in this movement reminds me, character-wise, of the cello in Schelomo and provides the Biblical wailing and gnashing of teeth that really gives the music its darkest undertones, and that’s not principal Gary Schutza’s game (stay tuned for movement 3). The coda, it must be noted, was superb; delicate, warm, and perfectly balanced (special props to Albert Suarez on horn…that shit is hard to play).
I confess that my expectations were significantly lowered after the first movement and the beginning of the second movement did little to break the spiral, lacking the punch in the woodwinds that it ought to have. Things began improving through the first “trio” in which the woodwinds TOTALLY REDEEMED THEMSELVES with tremendously inspired playing. What I thought was a nice diversion from the overall trajectory of the performance was instead the turning point. I don’t know what clicked between conductor and orchestra, but there was a noticeable change as the bassoon brought the landler theme back. The woodwinds punched the shit out of their delightful trills, principal violist Christine Grossman deliciously dug in to her instrument like she was sawing body parts in a last ditch effort to evade capture at the hands of a joint task force, and the strings had a spring in their respective step that was not present before. By the time the movement ended with the most charming piccolo/contrabassoon run I’ve ever heard in my life the corner had officially been turned.
The Rondo-Burleske was, and this is a musical term, fucking savage. It was as good as the orchestra has ever sounded in the five plus years I’ve been going to concerts here. The horns were laying waste to entire villages and taking few to no prisoners. The strings were aggressive, the woodwinds strident, the brass rabid. I kept waiting for the music to lose energy just because it seemed unlikely that it could be sustained at that anxiety-attack-inducing level, but Stern never let his musical Isotoners off your aural windpipe (that’s probably the worst analogy I’ve ever used. It is also my favorite.). And then the slow bit came. And then Gary Schutza showed what his game is: the sweetest and most achingly gentle tone I’ve heard in quite some time, played with an ease that was absolutely mind-boggling. Whatever complaints I had from the first movement were completely forgotten within ten seconds. God damn it was beautiful. The frantic main theme returned with the same ferocity it came in with and never let up, culminating in an armrest-gripping final 30 seconds that was like a plane crash if plane crashes were awesome. Possibly related to this: I’ve been watching a ton of Air Disasters lately.
Not much needs to be said about the finale. It was damn near perfect. Stern’s tempo? Perfect. The richness and depth of the strings? Perfect. The monumentally emotional outburst of the great climax of the movement? Perfect. The only imperfections to speak of were on the part of us who were in the paying chairs. The last movement demands more from the audience than any other music I can think of off the top of my head. It is so cosmic, so profound, so exposed, so reverent, and every cough drop wrapper, shuffle of feet, and sniffle really messes with the atmosphere. It’s pretty unreasonable to expect human beings to sit completely still and not breathe for 25 minutes, perhaps, but there’s no just no getting around the fact that we kinda fucked it up a bit when it counted. Not disastrously so, but enough to detract.
Regardless, it was a terrific performance in spite of the slow initial takeoff (another airplane metaphor WOO!). I think it’s fair to say after symphonies as varied in character as 1, 4, 6, and 9 that Michael Stern “gets” Mahler and his band seem to respond well. I’m just going to assume that there’ll be another Mahler symphony on the calendar next year, and I look forward to the cycle continuing. The people of “our” fair city are very fortunate to have a legitimately world class Mahler operation in their midst. There are some much bigger and more prominent cities in this country that cannot say the same and for that, we thank you.