There is no sound more beautiful in a concert hall than the silence of an audience profoundly moved at the end of a musical experience and held captive by the invitation to share the performer’s trance. For well over a minute at the end of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Alan Gilbert’s raised baton kept the Disney audience in that kind of suspension; the magic of the music flowed without pause from one edge of audibility to the other.
That was as it should be. There is a transcendence in that Mahler moment, a passage from sound to less sound to near-silence to absolute silence, borne onward by the simplest of means — a solo cello, not much more. At the dawn of the 20th century, more was dying out in the musical world than the final note of a sublime work by one great but dying composer. A whole kind of music was dying, an era. Mahler would attempt, but abandon, one more resuscitation, a Tenth Symphony couched as a long personal confessional to his Alma. But the Ninth was his ending, and the great performances — of which last week’s was one — are the ones that allow that process to take place unblemished by personal intrusion. “Look, folks, this is me, MTT, performing the Mahler Ninth,” said Michael Tilson Thomas, seemingly, when he brought his San Francisco Symphony to town a year or so ago. That’s the other way.
This greatest of all Mahler symphonies, composed as the whole realm of the Romantic symphony was passing from currency, is for all its power and its expanse an artwork of great fragility. Four times, over the course of each very long movement, it rises out of banal beginnings to some truly fearsome midpoint, and then subsides. Yet that subsidence at the very end — the cello solo mounting heavenward to end 90 minutes of music that had begun so simply, with a most unpromising “So what?” of an opening tune for the two harps — leaves you drained of breath, in a kind of benign catatonia. No wonder you cannot immediately applaud.
Or couldn’t, at least, as Alan Gilbert — New York–born, 1968, currently busy with two or three major European orchestras — drew the work from Philharmonic players during his one-week guest appearance here. Being merely human, he did not quite return us to the deep, reflective poetry of the early-’80s Giulini performance here that people still talk about in hushed tones (and whose memory I reinforce via Giulini’s Chicago Symphony recording on D.G.), but it was a Mahler Ninth honest and thoroughly respectable, delivered with a beat simple and clear. Tempos were flexible, expressive but not fussed with; everything sang out. For a one-shot guest engagement, you’d think the guy had been conducting that orchestra, in that hall, for weeks. Maybe, someday soon, he should. (He returns for one week next October, with Mozart and Richard Strauss: not enough.)
We heard quite a lot of Alfred Schnittke’s music when it first burst upon us in the last days of the Soviet cultural standoff. Gidon Kremer played his violin concertos here with the Philharmonic; the Kronos played his quartets; now those excellent musicians have other worlds to conquer. There was some delightful Schnittke here last month, however. The English violinist Daniel Hope came to the L.A. Chamber Orchestra with Schnittke’s Sonata No. 1, which is actually for violin and small orchestra, a delightful, all-over-the-place kind of piece (pure Schnittke, in other words), somewhat Mozart-permeated with some jolly dance stuff at the end that could just as easily pass as a “La Cucaracha” rip-off.
There was more — Schnittke’s 1975 Prelude in Memory of D. Shostakovich, which Joel Pargman and Sarah Thornblade played at last Saturday’s Jacaranda, standing with their violins at opposite sides of Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church. The trick there was that one violinist played the four notes — DS(don’t ask)CH — of Dmitri Shostakovich’s name; the other played the four notes of BACH. Gradually, over the time and space, they merged, thus forming a statement on the shared eminence of both composers: resource and trickery worthy of Schnittke — and worthy also of Jacaranda.
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Sharing the Road
If any music on the planet stands as more convincing evidence of the dark side of mortality than Mozart’s Requiem, let it be the Mahler Ninth. I don’t blame the Philharmonic for scheduling those two somber masterworks a week apart; such death-dealing doings were probably merely a matter of guest conductors’ availabilities and not any kind of demonic plotting. It just so happened, however, that those particularly mournful events also served as portals of doom within my own life scape — a dour week that also embraced my rendezvous with dentistry and my run-in with . . . let’s call her Miss Jessica Blue.
The first of these trials cannot in all honesty, however, be ascribed to either Mozart or Mahler; Westside Dental had had me on its appointment books for weeks in advance. Nevertheless, a procedure that requires an active critic to submit in a single sitting to the removal of six of his sharpest fangs — and to the replacement of these instruments of renowned predatory efficiency with a nondescript plastic gadget that looks terrible and tastes even worse — cannot be regarded lightly. Furthermore, the damn thing hurts.
Miss Blue, whose license plates proclaimed that she hails from Ohio, entered my life through a shared desire to occupy simultaneously the same segment of the Santa Monica Freeway: I with Mozart’s accents of mortality still throbbing in my grateful ears, she with heaven-knows-what in hers. We ended up sharing a lot more — names of insurance companies, phone numbers, that sort of thing. I survived unblemished; the tow truck, my violated vehicle ignominiously suspended behind, deposited me at home in full view of the folks next door. I’ve always regarded it as a civic duty to keep my neighborhood entertained; this latest in a string of episodes — which included the building of my second-story add-on, not to mention last summer’s paramedics — nicely fulfilled my responsibility.?