Most went to the CSO Thursday evening to see Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Mahler's 6th and most tragic symphony. I went for the world premiere and stayed for the 80-minute meditation on fate, which ends in blows.
Fact: Fate always wins.
As fate would have it, James Matheson's premiere of his violin concerto, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony and LA Phil, fell on the same concert as Mahler's 6th; in the preconcert talk he mentioned it was the first score he'd ever bought and that his piece used a similar motive.
In fact—the motive of a major chord transforming into a minor chord—happened nakedly in Matheson's piece but in reverse.
He described his compositional language as essentially "triadic", which is not to say tonal or diatonic—rather, consonant. The piece opened with the violin solo in the low stratosphere playing a motorhythmic figure with a lot of 4ths and 5ths. The orchestra brought out certain of the frenetic stream of notes, starting in the percussion, then others, then . . . WHAM. Full orchestra hit. Exclamation point. And sustain, then decay.
What followed was a meandering journey—the 1st movement was titled Caprice—that always seemed to come back to this figure.
At times cinematic, often to building to a big orchestra hit, the style could best be described as neo-romantic. [Haters would call it trite.]
I was no hater; in fact, it was nice to hear a piece that was not so rigorously anti-tonal. True pluralism comes when you accept the new alongside the old.
The second movement opened with a hushed shimmering curtain of orchestral strings—again in the stratosphere but sustained. The violin crept in below, somber in its low register. Providing a good contrast to the 1st movement, the second—titled Chaconne—progressed in this contemplative daze, slowly awakening until . . . jittery jackrabbits, the violin takes off, interrupting the serene mood, like a rocket ship jigging its way into space, the entire orchestra eventually following suit.
I'm assuming one wouldn't go around calling a movement a chaconne without some repeating harmonic or bass progression, but, if there was one, I missed it.
Alas, there's a black hole where my memory of the 3rd movement should be; must have been obliterated by Mahler's 6th.
Salonen took the dramatic, called "tragic", symphony and heightened the drama. The militaristic opening was rhythmically brusque but the 2nd theme, said Alma Mahler's theme, was searingly sentimental. Eventually, the military wins the 1st movement.
Depending on the conductor's choice, the 2nd movement can either provide immediate relief or continuing marching.
Salonen chose to prolong relief, putting the schizophrenic Scherzo next. He kept the tempo of the scherzo-march closer to the pedestrian side, so the movement shared a lot of characteristics with the first—including key, both in A minor.
Once again, the military machine unwinds, slowing down to a crawl before trickling out a gentle melody like from a music box. Spoiler alert: the idyllic mood is interrupted—in Salonen's world drastically louder and faster—by a violent dance in the brass, which exit as quickly as they entered.
With all its struggle, the pushing and pulling, the brash interruptions, the Scherzo is emotionally exhausting, so perhaps the respite of the Andante is better afterwards.
Then, the real high drama ensues in the 4th movement, which is always the 4th movement. I always lose count of how many climaxes there are and how many there should be, but the hammers fell twice. That is, a large sledge hammer was felled onto a large rustic drum, giving a sound somewhere in between Berlioz' guillotine and a punch in the gut. Either way, principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh gave all of her 100 pounds to the task, representing the blows of fate. In the years after the symphony's composition, Mahler would experience these blows as his first daughter dying of scarlet fever and then, a few years later, a heart condition which would prove to be fatal.
Strong performances from the members of the CSO: the winds, through no fault of their own, were often inaudible in the first movement, but then when I could hear them, they sounded good; the brass were always audible, especially from my seat directly in the flight path of their rocket launchers; the horns were like 98% perfect; the percussion 99.9% [I thought the on-stage almglocken (cowbells) were a little too piercing]; and the strings were the rock solid foundation on which the whole endeavor depended.
Salonen broke quite the sweat, leading the troops to a resounding victory. It's the kind of performance of a kind of symphony that is almost incomprehensible for days afterwards, making sense only through active inattention and dream.
Summary: Well written, contemporary score (though doomed to be forgotten by history); high, late-Romantic drama made higher. Like Totally Recommended
Filed under: CSO