It's entirely possible that Gustav Mahler did not compose his Second Symphony with the Hollywood Bowl in mind; yet the two artifacts, the grandiose hullabaloo of a symphony from 1894 and the performance space imposed upon some impressive Cahuenga Pass real estate some 30 years later, strike me as having been created out of a single impulse. It also occurred to me at last week's “official” opening concert – as Sir Roger Norrington and his assembled forces (the Philharmonic, the Master Chorale, vocal soloists, offstage brass bands and maybe vacuum cleaners, a passing helicopter or two) set the heavens afire with wave upon wave of Mahlerian onslaught – that Mahler himself looms ever more clearly as the dominant musical figure of this century.
The millenniologists and other list makers can argue for their Igor, Maria, Ringo and Lennie. You can also argue that the Mahler Second, which set off these thoughts, was actually composed in 1894. Never mind; this was the work (alongside, depending how you count, its eight, nine or nine and a half companions) that cast an inescapable shadow across the music making and the musical thinking of this century. The struggles of Mahler the composer (as distinguished from the unchallengeable triumphs of Mahler the conductor), from hostile rejection to grudging acceptance to triumphant hysteria, are a central saga of our time, the shaping force that altered for all time the nature of music.
Mahler came to New York in 1908 at the invitation of the Metropolitan Opera's Heinrich Conried; for two seasons he and Arturo Toscanini functioned as the company's principal conductors, after which Mahler left to take on the New York Philharmonic. Nothing much has been documented about how the two volcanic geniuses got along, or whether they were even aware of each other's presence; given Mahler's long history of fight picking at the Vienna Court Opera, however, someone (Ken Russell, perhaps?) could concoct a pretty good scenario for a Gus 'n' Artie epic or sitcom. I find the juncture of the two significant for other reasons, however. Think of Toscanini, his fierce obsessions with re-creating the cumulative power of a musical structure, whether a Verdian ensemble or a Beethoven symphony. Think of Mahler, his own music an equally fierce denial of structural unity, obsessed instead with creating vast, amorphous, emotion-crammed landscapes, more anecdotal than cumulative. In his entire career, by the way, Toscanini never conducted a note of Mahler.
A famous medallion struck by some Mahler fan club bore the inscription “My Time Will Yet Come.” When it did come – through the efforts of true believers, among whom Leonard Bernstein was only one of many – Toscanini was already a memento. More important than the gratifying increase in performances and recordings of his own works from 1960 on, Mahler's shadow also fell upon the worktables of generations of composers. Name someone – bet you can't – whose music hasn't been touched in some way by Mahler's kind of anecdotal structuring, by his mastery of a buildup of intensity until a single thread of sound (a solo flute, perhaps, or a lamenting bassoon) stops our breath at extraordinary length. Think of Shostakovich, Copland, Schnittke (absolutely!), Ligeti (those wonderful burlesque pieces!), Bernstein himself, Tippett . . . the list grows.
The struggle, while it raged, was fierce and bloody. Any critic mindful of responsibilities has to wince at the words of The New York Times' Olin Downes, his ears under assult from a 1948 performance of Mahler's Seventh Symphony (by Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic). “There is little that this writer cares to say on the subject of Mahler's symphony,” wrote America's most influential tastemaker. “He does not like it at all . . . It is to our mind bad art, bad esthetic, bad, presumptuous and blatantly vulgar music . . . After three-quarters of an hour of the worst and most pretentious of the Mahler symphonies we found we could not take it and left the hall.” (You should know that the frequently employed “we” with this critic always implied a partnership between Downes and the Almighty, with no clear definition of which was which.) From Los Angeles, Arnold Schoenberg, infuriated at Downes' out-of-hand dismissal of the work – as he had been with Downes' equally vitriolic putdown of his own Five Pieces – responded with a letter of protest full of Mahlerian resonance; Downes replied, allowing that the music he liked was to him a religion and, thus, entitled him to be intolerant of other religions. The correspondence, rather pathetic reading at this late date (it's in Schoenberg's collected letters), filled quite a lot of newsprint in a November and December of 50 years ago.
Meanwhile, back at the Bowl . . . Norrington brought his passion for authenticity into the Mahlerian world in a performance admirably no-frills, even zippy, a touch always welcome in Mahler. He seated the strings onstage as in Mahler's time, with the first and second violins down front to underscore the give-and-take between these sections; even through the Bowl's always problematic amplification, the difference was notable. Better yet, he encouraged the strings to employ just a tad of portamento, a sexy sliding between notes instead of the clean attack favored nowadays; in the whipped-cream elegance of the slow movement in particular the effect was . . . well, delicious.
On successive nights last week I attended two Mozart operas: a bounty at any time and especially during what are supposed to be summer doldrums. At the Torrance Cultural Arts Center, the newly anointed South Bay Opera sprang to brimming life with a more-than-merely-commendable Cosi fan Tutte; at the John Anson Ford Theater, Lucinda Carver's Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra did all right by The Abduction From the Seraglio in an unstaged version, which, considering the problems of that space, was probably the better part of wisdom. Both operas were sung in their original languages: the Cosi with supertitles (which conked out for a while in Act 1), the Abduction with Rich Capparela's maybe-one-joke-too-many English narration.
One must not overpraise on the strength of good intentions; the South Bay singers showed more promise than current ability. The Fiordiligi (Lori A. Stinson) managed her two killer arias with better luck with the top notes than elsewhere; the Guglielmo (Zeffin Quinn Hollis) displayed a promising baritone that will probably clean up well. The perennial Frank Fetta held the ensemble together with fair success, but conducted with little elegance of line or phrase. I cannot but wish the company well, and also cannot but wish they were promising more adventurous repertory than their upcoming Hansel and Gretel or Madama Butterfly. Lucinda Carver led her splendid small orchestra in a bouncy, vital reading of the Abduction, but her cast was once again a matter of good intentions over results. The Osmin of Michael Li-Paz stole the show; Greg Fedderly sang his Belmonte through an announced and obvious case of sinusitis; the gals – Camille King and Diana Tash – were just okay. But the moon was full, the setting sublime, the music by Mozart; who could ask for anything more?
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