Feel the Ecstasy!

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Mon, 2015-07-13 07:16

There are two types of people in the world: those who worship Gustav Mahler and those who do not. For those who do, Mahler's music is a religious experience. Mahler is not so much a composer as a Deity, in whose Presence one shall inexorably convulse with ecstasy. As one who believes that ecstasy is the whole point of music, I empathise with the sentiment; I just don't, as a rule (huge exception noted below) get ecstasy from Mahler. I hear a plenitude of intimations of it, but an excess of agony and angst (there must be some agony and angst, of course, in order that we may better appreciate the ecstasy) is frequently woven in, and Mahler's point is invariably too long in the making. It's hard to feel ecstasised while muttering, "Oh, get on with it, man!"

Worse things than that have been said about Mahler, of course, and by great luminaries. The saintly Yehudi Menuhin viewed him as the last gasp of late Romantic self-indulgence, and Vaughan Williams put him down as a "tolerable imitation of a composer"; however, it would be imprudent indeed in 2015 lightly to dismiss a figure who has so clearly endured in spite of his critics, who does inspire religious devotion and whose premier prophet in the twentieth century was the genius, Leonard Bernstein.

In any event, neither devout Mahlerites nor non-believers had reason to complain at the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's rendering of Mahler's 5th Symphony at the Michael Fowler Centre on Saturday night. To the contrary. From the opening Beethovian trumpet-blast—tatatataaaaaa!!—through its Brahmsian Funeral March to its explosive conclusion several hours later (kidding—just), this oft-weird admixture of tragedy and triumph was rendered captivatingly by an orchestra in top form. Their conductor, Vasily Petrenko, cut a dashing figure on the podium. Handsome and athletic, he is what might in modern parlance be called a "hottie." Watching him during Mahler's less inspired moments made for a more appealing experience for this non-worshipper.

The incongruously beautiful fourth movement, Adagietto, puts paid to any notion that Mahler couldn't have written more melodiously more often had he wanted to. That's the one that, decades later, went "viral" after Visconti used it in his movie version of Death in Venice, and is assuredly among the most ecstasy-inducing compositions ever. As to why he didn't write that way more often, you'd have to ask Freud. Literally. Mahler had a session with him once, depressed and demoralised by his wife's affair with a younger man, and evidently revealed among other things that he couldn't quite take his own music seriously—he felt he had allowed it to be corrupted by "frivolous" street tunes he had heard as a child. Did he routinely hold back from such unbridled ecstasy as contained in Adagietto because he felt deep down it was parody? Or that he had to atone for his "frivolity" with avant-garde complexity and cacophony? Or was it just that his sense of life was so steeped in gloom that "unbridled ecstasy" was simply unsustainable, if not unthinkable? Whatever the explanation, it's a pity, because the surfeit of derangement—cacophony in pursuit of catastrophe, to paraphrase one critic—in much of Mahler probably contributed to the beginnings of the pervasive nervy, neurotic, ugly, incoherent, gratuitous noise in contemporary "music" and all around us in daily life.

But I digress. For all this non-worshipper's contemplative qualms, the NZSO's Mahler 5 was magnificent, as is everything it does. The roars of approval that thundered forth from the audience for soloists, conductor and composer alike were well-deserved. And the worshippers were indeed, as per my opening observations, convulsed with ecstasy. (There was one in front of me, and another to my right. They were distinctive, solitary figures who appeared to be wearing overcoats even though they weren't. They clearly believed their boy had been done justice—and no doubt, when it comes to their boy, they are extremely hard to please.)

As it happens, we had already been afforded a generous quotient of unbridled ecstasy courtesy that first-ish gasp—nay, typhoon—of early Romantic self-indulgence, Franz Liszt. This hero's Piano Concerto No. 2 was performed in the first half by formidable Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski. No trace of self-doubt in the emotionally robust Liszt, and none in the pianist's dazzling performance. Hearing the single-movement, 20-minute concerto played with such virtuosic mastery was alone, as they say, worth the price of admission.

Power and Passion—Liszt and Mahler has yet to play in Christchurch (Wed, July 15), Auckland (Fri, July 17) and Hamilton (Sat, July 18). Whichever type of person in the world you are, be in quick—and feel the ecstasy!

Mahler's Fifth and Unborn Twins

Ed Hudgins's picture

In October 2010, Talia--six months pregnant with our twins--and I went to the Kennedy Center to hear the National Symphony under Christoph Eschenbach conduct Mahler's Fifth. We sat in the front box over the orchestra, looking down on the brass section and I could just about read the scores on the music stands. I put a coat over Talia's tummy, concerned that the incredible opening might be too noisy for our soon-to-be Sophia and Allegra. They did wiggle a bit, I hope in pre- birth enjoyment. And the music was indeed ecstasy!
Mahler 5 photo Mahler 5_zpsugpanje7.jpg

Mahler's Second and Eighth Symphonies

Ed Hudgins's picture

[I made this post on Objectivist Living in 2006, but it seems appropriate to repost it here.]

Posted 12 June 2006 - 10:17 AM

Gustav Mahler’s Second and Eighth Symphonies

Are any of you Mahler fans? On Friday I saw the 2nd Symphony, the "Resurrection," with the Baltimore Symphony under Yuri Temirkanov in his farewell concert, and Saturday I saw the 8th, the "Symphony of a Thousand" with the National Symphony under Leonard Slatkin. Incredible!

The first movement of the 2nd -- one of my favorites -- is one of Mahler’s strong struggle with death themes, starting with low strings, slowly adding instruments and pace, building -- with contemplative, longing and occasionally peaceful passages -- to bold pronouncements by the brass – characteristic Mahler! Temirkanov started slower than in my favorite recording of this work by Solti but built it up well. And the brass truly rose to the occasion of a piece that’s a brass-lover’s dream.

The second and third movements are like the somewhat peaceful reflections of someone at the end of a life. The final movements are strong Mahler, with a soloist and then large chorus on the theme death and rebirth. Mahler’s use of instruments and orchestration give a unique, individualistic and unmistakable sound. There are passages in this symphony that I queue up on my CD to listen to, to savor!

Some Objectivists might argue that the 2nd (as well as other Mahler works) are simply too tragic, with too malevolent as sense of life, and with the only respites coming only from religion. But what you hear in the 2nd is power, passion and strength. You don’t have to have a malevolent sense of life to appreciate that and you will find no better place for such an experience than Mahler.

The 8th Symphony is called the "Symphony of a Thousand" for the size of the ensemble. Being in a concert hall where this is being played is an experience in itself that you will rarely have and should never pass up!

I counted at least 350 chorus members and soloists. They were not only arrayed behind the orchestra staked to the huge organ pipes near the ceiling, they were arrayed in the special box seats on the sides of the stage and in all of the third tier seats on both sides of the Kennedy Center concert hall. (No wonder tickets were hard to come by! Condi Rice, did manage to get a ticket; she was there in the box where, years ago, I saw Henry Kissinger at a concert conducted by Karajan. I guess secretaries of state have good taste in music!) Slatkin even put eight of the brass up there in the left rear third tier. There was a soloist up in the fourth tier as well. There were about 150 musicians manning the instruments.

Talk about a stereo effect! This is something that no sound system could ever reproduce. You really need to be there. By the way, no one could fall asleep during this symphony. If you could, it’s because you have serious ear or neural damage and should see your physician immediately. Of course some would say that the volume of this work will create such damage in any case!

This has to be a tough piece to conduct because of its size as well as the complexity of Mahler’s score. But Slatkin, the best conductor NSO has had, pulled it off well.

The symphony itself is Mahler’s only one that is completely joyous and triumphant. It is choral throughout with a few purely instrumental interludes. The first part is to the text of a Medieval Latin hymn "Veni creator spiritus" ("Come creator Spirit"). The second part is to the German text of the end of "Faust" with various choirs of angels and other powers declaring the hope for a shining eternity.

Objectivists should not get too hung up on the religious themes. If you don’t understand Latin or German, just listen to the beautiful voices and powerful, triumphant music.

Back-to-back evenings of Mahler, each symphony an hour and a half long: Too much Mahler? Never! I’d like to try all nine symphonies, one each for nine nights in a row. That would separate the true from the fair-weather fans!

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