Thursday, January 21, 2016

Symphony Preview, January 22 and 23, 2016: As the world turns

John Adams
Photo: Lambert Orkis,
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The second and more substantial half of this weekend's St. Louis Symphony double bill consists of only two works: John Adams's "Saxophone Concerto," which the SLSO recorded in 2014, and Mahler's powerful "Symphony No. 5," which hasn't been heard here since 2009.

The Adams was a joint commission from the SLSO, the Boston Symphony, the Sao Paulo Symphony, and David Robertson’s Other Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony (where it had its first performance in August of 2013). When I first heard it in 2013, I found the concerto a tough nut to crack from a musical structure standpoint, largely because Adams’s style had developed to the point where entire movements were constructed from brief motifs that were so closely related it was often hard to tell them apart.

The long first movement of the concerto, for example, unfolds from a short, snappy rising arpeggio for the solo sax. That sense of rapid upward movement remains even when, towards the end, the mood shifts to the kind of sultry nocturne that wouldn’t be out of place in a film noir. The second and final movement—based on a two-note descending figure often embellished with cascades of notes in the solo part—ups the ante with a hyperkinetic solo line that rises to a classic jazz wail just before the final notes.

Timothy McAllister
At the time I wasn't sure whether the concerto itself warranted repeated hearing, so it will be good to get reacquainted with the piece. Better yet, the soloist is once again the ferociously talented Timothy McAllister, whose 2013 performance melded classical virtuosity with a real jazz sensibility.

At well over twice the length of the Adams concerto, the Big Dog on the program is the Mahler symphony. It's a work of sharp contrasts, with moments of pure poetry alternating with massive orchestral assaults. "Doors suddenly open to totally unfamiliar scenes," writes Eddie Silva in his program notes, "or to themes you thought had been used up, only to return, sometimes menacingly.”

But then, that's quintessential Mahler. "[A]ll of Mahler's music", wrote his great champion, Leonard Bernstein, in 1967, "is about Mahler—which means that it is about conflict."
Think of it: Mahler the Creator vs. Mahler the Performer; the Jew vs. the Christian; the Believer vs. the Doubter; the Naïf vs. the Sophisticate; the provincial Bohemian vs. the Viennese homme du monde; the Faustian Philosopher vs. the Oriental Mystic; the Operatic Symphonist who never wrote an opera. But mainly the battle rages between Western Man at the turn of the century and the life of the spirit.
That paragraph is also quintessential Bernstein, and its verbosity could not be more appropriate for its subject. For Mahler was nothing if not musically verbose. His musical gestures are invariably grand and, surprisingly for a man who essentially wrote nothing for the stage, brilliantly and aptly theatrical. Here's Bernstein again:
He took all (all!) the basic elements of German music, including the clichés, and drove them to their ultimate limits. He turned rests into shuddering silences; upbeats into volcanic preparations as for a death-blow. Luftpausen became gasps of shock or terrified suspense; accents grew into titanic stresses to be achieved by every conceivable means, both sonic and tonic. Ritardandi were stretched into near-motionlessness; accelerandi became tornadoes; dynamics were refined and exaggerated to a point of neurasthenic sensibility. Mahler's marches are like heart attacks, his chorales, like all Christendom gone mad. The old conventional four-bar phrases are delineated in steel; his most traditional cadences bless like the moment of remission from pain. Mahler is German music multiplied by n.
Bernstein could have been Mahler reincarnated. Given that he was born several years after Mahler died, maybe he was.

But I digress.

"Photo of Gustav Mahler by Moritz Nähr 01"
by Moritz Nähr (1859–1945)
Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia
Mr. Silva provides a concise road map to the symphony in his notes, so there's no point in my providing one here. The Wikipedia article on the work is also worth a read, especially since it includes examples of the principal themes and shows how they're developed over the symphony's 70-minute (or thereabouts) length. Allow me to recommend as well Michael Steinberg's San Francisco Symphony program notes for their in-depth analysis and their illumination of the relationship between the 5th and its predecessor, which briefly (and somewhat mysteriously) quotes the opening trumpet fanfare in its own first movement.

According to musicologist Donald Mitchell, Mahler once told Sibelius that a symphony "must be like the world. It must embrace everything." Mahler's 5th, with its incredible dynamic and emotional range and the kaleidoscopic brilliance of its orchestration, is the composer's world, to be sure. But its triumph, tragedy, and even its grotesque comedy are our world as well.

The essentials: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson presents John Adams's "Saxophone Concerto," with soloist Timothy McAllister, and Mahler's "Symphony No. 5" Friday at 10:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m., January 22 and 23. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information:

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