On a chilly spring evening, April 13, 2010, roughly 150 people crowded into the Parish Hall in Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street for the Mahler-Schoenberg Project, a program conceived and conducted by Levi Hammer, Zander Fellow at the Boston Philharmonic. The concert of two works written on the brink of the modern era, Arnold Schoenberg’s first Chamber Symphony and Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, were performed by an ad hoc orchestra assembled from students at the New England Conservatory and soprano Angela Mortellaro.
The orchestra was seated at floor level, remarkably close to the surrounding audience. This was a gamble, for while the blurring of the line between the audience and orchestra promised an intimate setting and a novel concert experience, the aural implications of this arrangement were problematic. At intermission several members of the audience had to move their chairs because they were seated much too close to the horns. Ultimately, however, the gamble paid off, and the experimental setting led to a fresh performance of these two masterpieces of the early 20th century.
The concert opened with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9. Premiered in 1907, the work resides in a transitional place in music history, simultaneously working within the bonds of the Romantic era even as it seeks to break free from their conventions. The encapsulated form of the one-movement work, merging the four movements of symphony into a single sonata allegro, hearkens back to Franz Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy (1822). Yet from the very first bars, the tonality of the work is aggressively attenuated by the whole tone melodic motion and stacked fourths. One simply cannot resist hearing Schoenberg’s dissonance grappling with its shackles.
In this difficult piece, Hammer found steady ground between the two worlds. His earnest and precise direction balanced a Romantic articulation of the structure with a modernist’s adherence to rhythm and color. If some of the textures lacked clarity in the “development” (a tendency of the work that the composer himself attempted to remedy in 1936), this was compensated for by Hammer’s nuanced rendering of the thematic recapitulation and coda. Ultimately, Schoenberg called the work a chamber symphony (Kammersymphonie) because it demanded an intimate setting. Given this setting, Hammer electrifed the room.
It must be noted that the performance of Mahler’s Fourth faced an uphill battle from the start. If the intimate setting was appropriate for Schoenberg’s work, it undermined Mahler’s by confining to a chamber an expansive work for the concert hall. As a result, the greater part of the first movement was spent acclimating the work to this foreign surrounding. However, in the “Scherzo” things quickly began to turn around. Jeffrey Dyrda’s Freund Hein fiddle was remarkable, offsetting the nostalgic dance with a diabolical sneer. Here Hammer, revealing the influence of Boston Philharmonic’s Music Director Benjamin Zander, conducted an interpretation that was both spacious and warm without neglecting the underlying cynicism of Mahler’s nostalgia. This continued into the third movement, the sine qua non for any successful performance of this symphony. Hammer’s passionate interpretation neither rushed nor dawdled, but instead relished each variation.
Angela Mortellaro’s youthful soprano and polished technique in the fourth movement’s Das Himmlische Leben.was perfect for the part; she realistically gave voice to a child’s vision of Christian heaven. She has mastered a difficult role, for the naive Christianity in the text is betrayed by Mahler’s biography. In the year he wrote the movement, 1897, Mahler was forced to convert to Roman Catholicism in order to obtain a position directing the Vienna Opera. For Mahler, the stage direction that the childlike vision be given “absolutely without parody!” cannot be overestimated. The dark irony of the movement capped off a concert that succeeded in epitomizing “the elegance, sophistication, angst and decadence of fin-de-siècle Vienna;” It was a remarkable Tuesday evening, even for fin-de-siècle Boston.