Mahler without homework, especially where Benjamin Zander and his hand-picked Boston Philharmonic are at bat, is unthinkable, perhaps criminal. Before their Sanders Theatre concert on Thursday, 25 February, I dove into re-reading what writers of a previous generation —insightful Jack Diether and the encyclopedic Henry-Louis de La Grange — had to say about the composer, this work, and the performance tradition as it then stood. More delving among the astonishing body of critical and comparative pieces posted in our time, late winter of 2010, convinced me, once again, that the degree of scrutiny focused upon the Werk of this most complex of all Bohemian expatriates is even more committed and penetrating than it was during the first modern Mahler revival, on the heels of the centenary of his birth (1960) and the death of his wife, Alma (1964). There is a great deal to read, starting with portions of De La Grange’s two big Mahler books. One must also possess, or be prepared to quickly deploy, efficient filters in absorbing the wealth of opinion cloaked as data, historic veiled negativities, ill-masked Heldenverherung (hero worship, alla Wagner), or orgiastic over-interpretation brought to bear on slight written or thematic indices in the composer’s scores and in his guarded private life. That said, this “homework” is invigorating and provides the discerning reader (which one can certainly aspire to being, but…) with proper preparation for the dense and uncommonly demanding experience of a committed performance of one of the final Mahler Sinfonien.
And so I felt moderately well boosted toward the musical stratosphere where this encounter was to take place, in the company of the usual diverse and engaged audience who attend these eagerly awaited Boston Philharmonic programs. Please pardon my verbal build-up. It truly is a far stretch from the quotidian, regardless of the extent of a listener’s musically active life, to confront, take in, and duly absorb what that immensely positive force of nature, Benjamin Zander, has to offer in his customary talks preceding performances and in the playing itself.
The setting is familiar to all. As the smaller of the two big rooms in Harvard’s Memorial Hall, Jahrgang 1876, Sanders Theatre is that rara avis, a successful multi-purpose space. It is moderately resonant. Reverberance exists in rehearsal, gently and flatteringly, but is largely absent when the hall acquires a two-thirds-size audience, as on this evening. It is an exciting acoustic in which to let nuances of musicianly effort sift into one’s awareness, always in score-appropriate context, through the full dynamic range of even vast late-Romantic soundscapes like the Mahler Ninth.
It was a dark and stormy night! The Cambridge firmament without was determined to have its say during Mr. Zander’s extensive spoken introduction and whenever the orchestral sound inhabited lower dynamic reaches. Mahler might’ve scrawled draußen äußerst böig (darned gusty out there) in one of his string section drafts. Shrieks and enharmonic wind chords swelled and deflated themselves all evening long. The effect was atmospheric and, somehow, rather fitting.
Mr. Zander’s long pre-concert introduction to the Ninth paralleled and drew upon the contents of the explanatory discs the labels include with his orchestral releases. His verbal and physical language invited in everyone in a big way. Visiting musicians and school groups from overseas and from around North America, seated in blocks in the balcony and elsewhere, found themselves singled out and welcomed, with up-front credit to the corporations that have sponsored their tickets. Every member of the waiting orchestra was perched to pounce on a rehearsal number or quickly limned passage at a sudden wave of the whirling Zander baton. This led to moments of merriment as all watched the ensuing scramble among sections, but it also kept everyone rapt and deepened the audience’s investment in what, revealingly sketched in generous advance detail, awaited revelation in the performance proper. The one intermission followed this introduction. Then the Ninth soared into being.
The four movements of Gustav Mahler’s final completed symphony demand a great deal of orchestral players. There were hauntingly lovely moments in which the entire moving fabric of the music settled like gossamer along delicate, fey lines entrusted to the Boston Philharmonic’s fine section leaders. Two players familiar to Emmanuel Music concertgoers, first oboist Peggy Pearson and cello leader Rafael Popper-Keizer, delivered the famous solo passages for their instruments in the second movement (Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb. Scherzo in C) and, notably, in the closing quarter of the expansive D-flat fourth movement (Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend.) with surpassing warmth, precision, and tonal focus. Though this symphony owes little to Czech music per se, its orchestration now and then evinces instrumentation made familiar by the symphonic tapestries of Bohemians Viteszlav Novák, Josef Foerster, and Leos Janácek. Thus the piccolo often completes the bright, penetrating moments Mahler projects, even in quieter places, over profound, chordal, and wondrously clear bass textures. Piccolo player Lisa Hennessey swept into her often brief and always scarily exposed flights above other lines with a silvery, round sound so ravishing, and so patently secure, that a listener could always shelve the small prickle of apprehension that usually precedes such mercilessly spotlit passages. Concertmistress Joanna Kurkowicz spun lovely violin solos, the bottom range of her fine, rich instrument carrying through underlying strings and winds with power and elegance, never with that nervous solo vibratissimo one encounters a little too often. All four horns, first trumpet Eric Berlin, and the five hard-worked clarinetists were sheer delight to hear. Bass trombone Mark Rohr and tuba Donal Rankin, whose written parts tackle every dynamic and inhabit the full ranges of their instruments, underlaid great sweeps of the overall score with meticulous ensemble entries, tonal beauty, and firmly sustained pppp lines.
What can one say about any Benjamin Zander performance? Certainly, a catalogue of one’s preferences, likes, and “I’d’ve done this elsewise” enumerations is irrelevant when one is favored with so completely prepared a reading of a big, sprawling, and – superficially — barely unified work like the Mahler Ninth. In a sense, I have never heard a Zander/BPO iteration of one of the big concert staples, or rarities, from which I did not learn a great deal. I suppose I go to these focal cultural events to plunge into the score, to benefit from a committed and often satisfyingly high-charged unpeeling of the many and subtle layers that make up a symphony on this order. I truly enjoyed and liked what I heard at clear-as-a-bronze-bell Sanders Theatre last Thursday evening, and I was once again humbled by the sheer investment orchestra, conductor, and the effective BPO organization make in what they do. I have not often heard a Mahler symphony performance, on record or in the flesh, in which so much shared commitment was brought to bear, and in which I felt my own presence to be that of an active participant. Evenings like this one unavoidably raise a listener’s standards for the performance of orchestral music to…. you get the point.