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February 12, 2007

Major League Mahler

As I sat in the Schuster Performing Arts Center in Dayton, Ohio, on January 13th listening to Mahler's Third Symphony, I couldn't help reflecting on a number of things.

First was the sheer astonishment I felt in simply hearing the piece by the Dayton Philharmonic. I'm old enough to remember when hearing Mahler's Third even at the New York Philharmonic or Chicago Symphony Orchestra was a genuine occasion, and one rarely encountered. For those to whom Mahler has become commonplace, it is worth noting how recent his "arrival" truly is. When I heard the New York Philharmonic perform Mahler's First under Dimitri Mitropoulos (I believe it was in 1959), the shock of the sudden fortissimo that begins the finale, following on the soft ending of the third movement, was enough of a surprise to the audience that virtually everyone (myself included) audibly gasped. That would not happen today. Mahler's Sixth Symphony, to give another example, was composed in 1906, and received its American premiere in 1947 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Mitropoulos, forty-one years after its completion! And when was its second American performance? In 1955, once again with the New York Philharmonic under Mitropoulos. In other words, between 1906 and 1955, the Mahler Sixth received two sets of American performances, both by the same orchestra and conductor. I cite that simply to show the transformation of Mahler's place in what is called "the canon."

But it was not just the fact of the performance that got to me in Dayton - it was the quality. Taking on a big Mahler symphony was, not that long ago, considered a big risk and big challenge for orchestras in our smaller communities. But now the quality of musicians who make up orchestras throughout America is such that one encounters performances like this one that are completely satisfying - with no apology needed, no explanation like "well, when you consider the budget level of this orchestra, the playing was pretty good." Nope - this was a major league Mahler Third, beautifully shaped by Neal Gittleman and wonderfully executed by the orchestra. It was also helped by its surroundings - which gave way to more reflecting.

An amazing number of new concert halls have sprung up in recent years, and many of them are very, very good. Completed in 2003, Dayton's Schuster Center is one of those - the sound (I have now heard two concerts there) is just about everything you want, at least from the front of the balcony and row Q on the main floor, the two locations in which I've sat. The orchestral sound is rich and warm, while retaining clarity. The bass response is visceral, and you feel enveloped by the orchestra. But relatively new halls that I've encountered in the past few years in Memphis, TN; Nashville, TN; Charleston, WV; Omaha, NE; and Raleigh, NC are all true successes (and I'm doing this from memory, so I may have inadvertently omitted some others). While it is true that some of the halls built in the 1960s and 70s had some real acoustical issues, I have always believed that the problem wasn't that acoustics were unpredictable and unmanageable, but that the normal structure of the building teams in those days was for the acoustical consultant to report to the architect - thus assuring that in any difference of opinion the architect was more likely to prevail. Now most halls give the acoustician equal access to the owner in the construction process, thus giving the acoustician more control over the outcome. It has been very gratifying to encounter so many good new halls - particularly because the acoustical immediacy they create is a crucial part of the musical experience that is central to the mission of orchestras.

Another reflection sparked by the Dayton Mahler Third, and I'll admit that this one is highly subjective: the sheer pride of the orchestra in mastering a score like this was a tangible part of the audience experience. This looked like an orchestra having the time of its life, digging into this 100-minute monster of a piece and acing it. You saw it, you felt it, you heard it - and it was part of that indescribable magic that takes place when a connection is made between stage and audience. And the result was that a piece that was once considered too controversial, or difficult, to program, maintained a rapt, silent audience for its entire duration. The ovation at the end included not only shouts of "bravo" but whistles of approval from the audience. For one who has been going to concerts since the 1950s, it was an amazing experience.

Posted by hfogel at February 12, 2007 6:13 PM

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I don't recall that you've been in Overture Hall yet in Madison. You must check in one of these days. But this past weekend, DeMain and his band performed the Mahler 9th. It was fantastic - so well played and conducted. Since there was no keyboard part, I was pleased to be in the audience on one of the three nights and the ovation was outstanding and well deserved. Lynn Harrell, who performed on the first half, was sitting next to me for the Mahler and he was leading the shouts of "Bravo". Indeed, regional orchestras have more than come of age!

Ann Stanke

Posted by: Ann Stanke at February 13, 2007 10:16 AM

I was compelled to comment. Many of us, who aren't professional musicians and developed our love of classical music independently, advanced as far as Brahms and Wagner and thought our interests stopped there. Recently, I've discovered Mahler and Bruckner, and would now have to list Bruckner's 9th as my favorite musical work. Thanks to all orchestras who are helping to spread this music. Patricia Crespino

Posted by: Patricia Crespino at February 22, 2007 9:37 PM

Patricia -- there is a huge and wonderful world still in front of you, and it's wonderful to meet someone whose mind remains open to new discoveries. I hope you'll continue to find yourself stimulated by orchestras throughout your life.

Henry Fogel

Posted by: Henry Fogel at February 23, 2007 11:47 AM