M & M, a farewell
The choice of Mahler's Eighth Symphony for Lorin Maazel's farewell concerts as music director of the New York Philharmonic no doubt satisfied someone's sense of symbolism. The Eighth completed Maazel's tenure-long Mahler symphony survey. It's very big, and hence seems to suit a Special Occasion. It was composed about 100 years ago, while Mahler himself was music director of the NYP (actually, of the New York Symphony, which didn't merge with the Philharmonic until 1928). It's very big. Or did I say that already?
Maazel's seven-year Philharmonic tenure (actually, he has conducted the orchestra, mostly off until he become music director, then on, for 70+ years, counting from his debut in 1939 at the age of 9 and continuing on to future guest engagements) was controversial, but not in the sense that some critics loved him and others loathed him. The orchestra seemed to love him, or at least to enjoy playing for him, and they sounded great. Subscribers seemed more or less content, to judge from ticket sales. But critics mostly disdained him, and there was no buzz, no excitement.
Which is a bad old Philharmonic tradition, dating at least as far back as Virgil Thomson in 1940, one year after Maazel's debut, when he (Thomson, that is) complained about the orchestra playing no real part in New York's cultural life, or words to that effect. To be fair, there certainly was buzz under Bernstein and Boulez. Whether there will be under Alan Gilbert remains to be seen, but that's getting ahead of ourselves.)
The basic critical take on Maazel was that he was a fabulous technician (the orchestra never sounded better), an unimaginative programmer, a sometimes mannered and, in the end, uninteresting interpeter. For me, at his best, which was usually in the music of Richard Strauss, he was very convincing, and he was certainly smart, sometimes imperiously so. But otherwise, I didn't deviate too far from the critical consensus.
Mahler's Eighth is big but, usually, empty. Decades back that was how a lot of people felt about all his music, but for me, the Eighth is the emptiest of the bunch, and some of the others are pretty full, meaning that they're wonderful. Bernstein used to whip up considerable excitement at the end of the "Veni, creator spiritus" first part of the Eighth. But there's a lot of racket and the second-part setting of the end of Goethe's "Faust" is rather too Germanic even for me, the Germanophile.
Maazel's performance (the first of four, proclaimed Lorin Maazel Day by Mayor Bloomberg, who neither showed up to do the proclaiming nor sent an official representative), was curiously uninvolving for a supposedly touching farewell. Maazel conducted away, the orchestra played well, and the music unfolded with a steady clarity and sense of proportion, especially in the quieter bits. But it wasn't overwhelming, like Lenny could be. It would fabulous some day to hear this Symphony of a Thousand with a thousand performers: ah, were I still at the Lincoln Center Festival, with ludicrous amounts of money to burn!
Furthermore, though the best conductors (and technically, Maazel is right up there) can get an orchestra to sound terrific in Avery Fisher Hall, it remains acoustically bass shy, and the electronic organ is most definitely bass shy. That meant the thing sounded shallow, bereft of floor-shaking gravitas. Which Mahler needs and Maazel lacks.
A Germanophilic footnote: The supertitles and program text translated Goethe's concluding "Das Ewig-Weibliche/zieht uns hinan" as "The eternal feminine/leads us upwards." Makes sense, in that Faust is ascending to heaven and all. But -- I don't have a German dictionary handy -- doesn't hinan mean onwards, not upwards? Which does rather change the meaning.. .
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.
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