Thursday, October 16, 2008

Music That Makes Me Happy (Part 2 of Part 2)

So, as I mentioned last post, hearing Mahler 6 at the BSO was the first highlight of a wonderful musical weekend. I spent the rest of that post suggesting that the atmosphere little resembled the dire descriptions of decaying patrons and disinterested performers that we keep hearing about from the doomsaying prophets. But what made it so satisfying?

First of all, let me back up to say that I think all music reviews are personal (though many reviewers like to pretend otherwise), so I'm intentionally focusing on my own response more than trying to make some objective evaluation of Mahler, the BSO, James Levine, etc. Thus, I have to begin by saying how great it was just to be out at such an event. As I've confessed here before, over the last 20 years of being a busy student, performer, teacher, husband, and father, I haven't made enough effort to get out to live concerts. When commenting on the contemporary musical scene, I often feel like Tom Townsend in this priceless exchange from Metropolitan.

Audrey: What Jane Austen novels have you read?
Tom: None. I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it's all just made up by the author.

I don't have the same clever rationale as Tom, but I know I haven't really kept myself in the game enough to be an educated observer - or, more importantly, to enjoy what I love about music! So, just being at the BSO was reward in itself.

Now as to the music, I made an unusual decision that I slightly regret. It happens that I don't know Mahler #6 well at all. I've played #1 and #7 from the cello section and I've been choir rehearsal pianist for #8 - I also know my way around #4 and #5 more or less, but I haven't really crossed paths with #6. My first instinct was to devote the weeks before the concert to getting to know it by the standard methods of listening, reading, etc. Stephen Ledbetter's program notes make the excellent point that "no composer has benefited so much from the development of the recording as Mahler, simply because listeners were then able to live with his demanding works until their secrets could be revealed." And, as I've mentioned before, growing up in south Arkansas meant that I grew up on recordings much more than on live performances. It's my natural way into the world of a new piece.

However, several years of teaching about music to non-music majors have exposed me to the phenomenon of listeners who say they'd rather not be prepared for what to listen for or told what to expect. No, I don't just mean those who make excuses for not studying. I've realized for a long time that one thing I love about listening to music I love is that I know what's coming; listening within that sort of anticipatory framework is part of the joy. This is one reason the "classical music world" tends to get stuck in the past. We tend to be populated by listeners who like rehearing the familiar. I think I'll always be that kind of listener, but there are clearly those who don't want to know what's coming - who want a more literally spontaneous experience. (An interesting little side note: I've always felt that program notes should list approximate timings for the works on a program [maybe because I grew up listening to recordings that always list timings], but when I suggested this possibility to one of my classes, many students said they'd find that distracting. They like to be kept guessing about where the music is going. My biggest concern is for an audience hearing, say, the Brahms Violin Concerto for the first time, and having absolutely no idea that the first movement alone will go on for almost twenty minutes, but maybe I should save this topic for another day.)

At any rate, Mahler surely couldn't have expected his audiences (especially for the premieres!) to know his symphonies the way Mahlerites do today, so I thought it would be an interesting experiment to come let a world-class orchestra unfurl this symphony right before my eyes and ears. I figured I'd still have a lot of advantages over the novice listener since I know a lot of other Mahler, I know about symphonic forms, orchestration, etc. So, except for glancing through the program notes ahead of time, I stuck to my plan, not having cued up even a second of the recording I own.

Maybe because I'm not used to approaching music this way, I think it took me a while to settle in and just allow myself to listen "in the moment" to all the extraordinary things that Mahler and James Levine can do with an orchestra. In this regard, many of my favorite moments were the quieter, reflective passages that always seem to arrive as if by magic. Jamie Somerville's gorgeous horn solo in the middle of the 1st movement, the kooky, mystical cowbells that would appear out of nowhere. (If I had infinite time and resources, I'd definitely find a way to make a Bruce Dickinson meets Mahler sketch. In fact, this discussion group snippet suggests that Ben Zander wins the "more cowbell" prize for Mahler 6. The idea of having Christopher Walken channelling Ben Zander is just too funny, but I've probably lost all my readers with this digression...)

I enjoyed much of the first movement, although subsequent listenings haven't changed my feeling that the grim march theme is trying a little too hard to be serious. For some reason, I didn't fully find my way into the Scherzo, but the last two movements were consistently compelling. Although it's a silly thing, I'll admit that anticipation of the famous hammer-blows helped keep me focused in the last movement - unfortunately, our side balcony seats made it impossible to see most of what was going on back in that percussion corner (one reason the cowbells came across so mystically), but you could see audience members craning in that direction quite often, especially when the hammers were due. Interesting to think how just being aware that those three climactic events were on the schedule (they left out the third hammer blow, per Mahler's revision, but there's still a big arrival there) was enough to frame a 30-minute long movement.

But again, you see my bias towards listening within a framework. Maybe it would have been better not to know there'd be any hammer blows - or not to know if the last movement would take 5 minutes or 30 minutes. And speaking of frameworks, I was reminded how having a good experiential knowledge of sonata form also made the first movement (almost as long as the last) easier to process, even though it's almost comical to think that the formal design could really have anything in common with a 3-minute Clementi sonatina movement. (Comical, but quite important in understanding the evolution of musical semantics.)

So, I mostly wish I'd spent more time getting to know Mahler 6 ahead of time. As I wrote way back in one of my first blog posts, I rarely find myself completely taken in by a piece on first hearing. I say "mostly wish" because I do think the experiment was a useful one. Actually, I just spent ten writer's-block minutes trying to decide how to articulate that usefulness. Here's what makes it difficult. When you really know a piece well, when you experience it in performance, it's much easier to make a clear memory of that experience. Thus, I think it's safe to say there were many moments I loved that I simply don't remember clearly, for the simple reason that I didn't have the music already mapped out in my memory banks.

A couple of minor points about the BSO experience: In a world in which information can be moved and managed so easily, it's frustrating that the program doesn't list all the actual performers on the stage. In a big work like this, especially, many extras are called for, but just about any concert by a BSO-like band includes some subs. I don't understand why we can't see those names - if not in the printed program, then online. It's like going to a Red Sox game and having an unnamed pinch-runner step in for David Ortiz. It was fun to see several players on stage who I'd accompanied back in grad school days. A few of them are full-timers, so their names were printed, but many players on stage went anonymous, including at least one whose name I was trying to recall. No help from the BSO there.

Also, because Mahler had two different ideas about the ordering of the middle two movements, the program booklet specified that Friday's audience would get the Andante-Scherzo order, Saturday (we) would get the Scherzo-Andante order, and then Tuesday night's order would be decided based on what had worked best. That's cool, and a good way to get an audience thinking about why such decisions make a difference, which gets them thinking about how much functions, etc. All great. So, since they must have known most audience members would only be there for one night, why not post the final Tuesday decision on the website? I couldn't find mention of the final decision on the website or in the Globe. Why make this a point of interest if you're not going to provide some followup?

It's not like I can't find out the answer. It's just that it shows a lack of imagination about how a web presence can really enhance a concert experience. Maybe I'll talk more about that when I get around to describing our paperless programs for The Doctor in Spite of Himself. For now, I still haven't even gotten to my other happy musical experience of the weekend, but that story will definitely have to wait until tomorrow. I may be on Quad Break, but I still have a stack of projects I need to start grading - or, at minimum, I need to start procrastinating about them.

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