For those who went to the Boston Symphony concert to hear Music Director James Levine conduct Mahler 9 on last evening, February 26, the announcement that the ailing conductor (whose health issues have so unfortunately been featured in the news more prominently than his recent musical achievements) had canceled his appearance was truly disappointing. Managing director Mark Volpe came out on stage to explain that Levine “recently had a procedure to address his ongoing back issues” and “is experiencing some complications which have been further exacerbated by a viral infection.’’ Without a doubt, this announcement has implications that go far beyond this week’s scheduled performances of the Mahler 9 and puts in question the Levine-heavy remainder of the current season and his tenure at the BSO as a whole. It was perhaps especially disconcerting for those who know, remember, and love Levine’s magisterial performances of Mahler symphonies over the course of his time in Boston as well as for those who would like to see Levine get well and persevere as BSO’s music director. Many will have etched in their minds his inaugural concert, in which Mahler’s 8th, “Symphony of a Thousand,” moved the audience to a state of exaltation. For this writer, that performance was what NPR calls a “driveway moment,” where having arrived at your destination, you are so captivated by the radio program that you remain in the car to finish listening — in this case, to a live broadcast from Symphony Hall.
BSO Assistant Conductor Sean Newhouse, having been literally thrust onto the stage on half-a-day notice and having barely had one prior rehearsal with the orchestra on this ninety-minute behemoth of a symphony, could not have found himself in a more difficult situation. The same was true for the symphony players, who at times looked and sounded disoriented (though Principal Flute Elizabeth Rowe contributed a stellar solo at the end of the first movement). Newhouse made out bravely and without losing face, despite his inability truly to get a handle on the piece until the very last movement, a whole hour into the work. It would be unjust both to Newhouse and to the members of the orchestra to go through the list of things that did not go right in yesterday’s performance. These ranged from basic difficulties with technical execution and ensemble to more complicated issues of musical content, pacing, and architecture. Newhouse often conducted with energy and movements of a bandleader — clearly in an attempt to stay on track — without missing a beat, but failing to show musical gestures and to find emotional rapport with the orchestra that itself at times seemed reluctant to bridge the gap.
Without making allowances for his young age — which seems less appropriate to this writer after witnessing the versatility of, say, Gustavo Dudamel (Proms) or, to bring it a bit closer to home, our own Joshua Weilerstein (YouTube) — it was surprising to see the conductor remain so aloof to the wide gamut of mental states, from euphoria to utter desperation, that inhabit this last completed symphony by Mahler, a work that ultimately deals with loss and death. In this context it was thus even more surprising to see Newhouse suddenly step up to the plate, both intellectually and emotionally, in the final Adagio, a thirty-minute hymn to life (and death) eternal, a piece of music which requires more depth and maturity than the preceding three movements. Suddenly the orchestra started to respond, with Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe for the first time in yesterday’s performance playing as only very few can. Principal Cello Jules Eskin and Principal Viola Steven Ansell, with woodwind and brass players too numerous to list, contributed with beauty of sound and depth of feeling. At that point it was only the constant noise from various objects falling down on the floor in the hall itself that occasionally disrupted the masterfully set up atmosphere of Mahler’s final masterpiece.