Gustav Mahler's Sixth Symphony is the elephant in the parlor, bedecked with garlands of roses. Its every dimension is wrong. From within the 85 minutes of Christoph Eschenbach's performance with the Philharmonic last weekend, any composition student with an X-Acto knife could shape a nicely proportioned 40-minute symphony. Yet that is part of its singular charm. Midway through the first movement, you nod off in self-defense as Mahler's irritating dissertation on life's myriad agonies grinds on and on; you awake, aware of being bathed in a warm, winning, lightly orchestrated cynical smile. (Mr. Eschenbach compounded the agony by observing the optional first-movement repeat.) You drop off again, only to emerge into angelic, soft music as enchanting as anything you've ever heard in your lifetime. Then comes the lurid and brutal finale, which pins you to your seat with the sheer, gruesome intensity of its volume. The music — if such it be — zooms past logical ending after logical ending. Someone — percussionist Perry Dreiman — comes onstage to wield a mighty hammer against a large hollow box, as if a next-door neighbor might be banging against a wall in justifiable complaint.
I have to marvel: Little more than a week after the Flying Dutchmen from the Concertgebouw held me spellbound with the Mahler Fifth, music toward which I have been known to express strong reservations, here comes the even-more-oft-despised Sixth, and once again I have succumbed. This time, Mr. Eschenbach was the triumphant warrior in the cause. He allowed no such sissy paraphernalia as a score in front of him on a podium. He attacked the music with flailing fists and flashing glare — if you're my age, you had to be reminded of Dimitri Mitropoulos, similarly bald of pate — and drew from our Philharmonic sounds hard-edged and nicely defined. He came here preceded by stories of not getting along in Philadelphia, where he served that city's orchestra as music director for a time. Tough.
The Sixth is not easy music; it stands in for Mahler at a time of personal tragedy. You have to be prepared, as with any member of species mastodoni, for the precipitous stop, the sudden wounded outcry. The range of emotion in the work is astonishing; this, especially in the last movement, is part of its weakness. The moods swing back and forth toward what you think may be a final definitive statement, but then we are tumbled back into the swirl. The thwacks with a large hammer — Fate exerting its blows against the Protagonist — give the work its fame, with percussionist Dreiman exiting and entering to manage some offstage effects as well as the biz with his oversize croquet mallet onstage. (Mahler's original score called for three hammer blows, including one that fells the Protagonist to end the entire work. The later edition, which is now commonly used, calls for only two, presumably to allow the poor guy another chance at Life. Also — I might as well tell you, since nobody has sworn me to secrecy — several Philharmonic folk slipped word to me that they feel that the hammer was too small. Talk about your misguided economies!)
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Thinking Smaller but Big
Midway in the slow movement of Mozart's B-flat Piano Concerto (Kochel-Katalog 595, the last of the 27 concertos that bear Mozart's name), the music subsides to a near nothingness. The orchestra maintains a steady, throbbing harmony, nothing more than a backdrop for a one-finger melody for the pianist — a kind of operatic aria, except without words. Mozart's mature piano concertos are full of these moments of enchantment — check out K. 466, 467, 488, and prepare to swoon. Each of these moments becomes like a wordless stand-in for one of his great operatic characters: Susanna or Cherubino probably most of all. What great and constant companions they all become, even through a pianist's single finger!
Last Sunday at UCLA's Royce Hall, there ended a great and memorable undertaking, Jeffrey Kahane's complete traversal of all 27 of Mozart's works in this genre: early, delightful, clattering works with the keyboard and the small orchestra doing not much more than imitating one another in exchange of neat 18th-century tuneful patterns, moving through a miraculously short lifetime toward the late works, in which soloist and orchestra fall to profound discussions for which no words could suffice. Who could find, or need, the words for the one-finger interlude in K. 595? Or that giddy, syncopated episode that skips through the many tonalities in the finale? Or the marvelous comic-opera finale to K. 466, also on last Sunday's program? Or, further back in our concert-going history, the deep melancholy in the slow movements of K. 482 and 488, and the miraculous way they resolve — sending shivers down our collective spines — in just the last few measures? Does anything in any of those Brobdingnagian Mahler symphonies match the brain-cleansing impact of those extraordinary works of musical conversation, none longer than half an hour, none requiring more than pairs of woodwinds and a couple of timpani? Fortunately, Mahler knew enough not to try.
This was the last of Kahane's concerts in this series, conducting from the keyboard the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which he has brought to level of a richness, clarity and high spirits worthy to collaborate in a Mozart project. In three years of Mozart immersion, he, too, has become a deeper, wiser — and, vital for Mozart, wittier — exponent of all this matchless music. We are all much the better. The orchestra continues, in Glendale's Alex Theatre and at UCLA's Royce Hall. Under Kahane, it has become one of the area's great treasures; his performances of Haydn symphonies are also noteworthy. Many of its programs are carried on KUSC; its fame, I gladly report, spreads even further than that.