Today I got to see my local Portland Symphony Orchestra play Mahler’s 5 Symphony. My mom wanted to go with me, but I made her take me to the pre-concert lecture, and the post-concert Q and A with the conductor. She agreed to the conditions. The lecture was illuminating, although most of it was historical stuff I already knew. I did get a new perspective on Mahler’s later music: the first four symphonies are more outward looking, Mahler looking at the world, while from the 5th onward, they are more inward, Mahler looking at himself. The guy leading it is the director of string activities at the local university, and I like him. I asked him about Bruckner, and he said that he takes a long time to say his sentence, but they are still great sentences, and that it is better to think of Bruckner in paragraphs as opposed to individual sentences, which sounds good to me. Anyone who likes Bruckner can’t be that bad (although Hitler did like him…)
Now to the actual music. Originally there was supposed to be a work before the Mahler on the program: Bach’s E-flat Prelude and Fugue, St. Anne, arr. Schoenberg, which I was somewhat looking forward to hearing. However, the conductor, Robert Moody, said that they wanted to place more emphasis on the symphony, and also for more artistic reasons, read: he wanted more rehearsal time for the Mahler. Moody also said that he viewed the first four movements as individual tone poems, and finale was a synthesis of all that had come before. Not how I view it, but he’s entitled to his view, and I can sort of see where he’s coming from. The first movement was as good as I’ve ever heard it. The trumpet at the beginning was solid, but it was a bit more solemn as opposed to fanfare like, but I guess that could be due to the fact that this was the Portland Symphony not the New York Philharmonic. The percussion was explosive over the course of the whole work, but really noticeable in the funeral march. The second cymbal crash near the beginning made my heart explode a little. There were a few parts where Moody slowed the tempo where I had never heard it before, and it sounded very convincing. The movement was done justice, although in the few moments of near silence before the final string pizzacato, someone thought that right there would be a good time to start coughing. Really? You couldn’t have waited the about 10 seconds? Come on.
The second movement was a little more unsure. There were a few spots where I could tell it was off a bit, but it never got out of hand. There was definitely violence as Mr. Mahler intended. The final bars after the last big explosion of sound were wicked spooky, and the last three notes in the string bass and timpani, were so soft and subtle, that no one coughed that time. Sidenote: the clarinet playing throughout was superb. Moody took the pause that Mahler wanted (for no justifiable reason) after the first movement after the second movement instead (because that makes sense).
The third movement got a little weird. The horn obbligato was standing up next to the horns, which makes more sense to me than having him stand at the front of the stage. In the faster sections, and of course I use that term relatively, there were quite a few spots where it seemed uneasy. There were a few cracked notes in the solo horn, but hey, Bud Herseth did it on Mysterious Mountain, and humans are imperfect. After some nice playing by the solo string quartet at the start of the trio, the principal oboe decided he didn’t want to wait the few more bars he was supposed to so he started his solo early, so of course Moody gave him the “dude, stop playing” wave, which he eventually got. The second oboe, after he had stopped playing leaned over to him, and probably said something like, “dude, you came in early” and he probably said something like, “No shit.” After that though, it ended well. The last climax section was awesome, and the last two bars made a good argument that they are the coolest bars in all music.
The adagietto was the adagietto. We know how it goes. Moody conducted with his hands, which I think was a nice touch. That reminds me: at times Moody had trembling hands that would have made Gergiev proud. The pause between the 4th and 5th movements was a little uncomfortable for me, because I’m used to them going right into one another. Although Moody never actually made it look like there was a break in the music, there was at least 10 seconds of silence. The finale was the rollicking good time it was supposed to be. When the big brass chorale from the second movement came back, ti really made me think “Wow, 15 brass players can really fill a hall with sound.” It was glorious. The ovation was long and well deserved.
All in all a good time. We had wicked seats, way up in the balcony, so I could see everything, and they were cheap, so even better. I did come away thinking, “Wow, music is actually hard,” because of course I’ve been listening to top notch recordings by the best orchestras in the world. I was reminded that Mahler isn’t as easy as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound easy.