Sunday, June 10, 2007

Building an Audience for Mahler

I arrived in the Bay Area at the same time that Michael Tilson Thomas (we are all a lot more comfortable with "MTT" than any of us ever were with that awful epithet "Frisco") assumed the directorship of the San Francisco Symphony; and I have taken a great deal of interest in how he has used his leadership. He has done so many noteworthy and fascinating things with his "bully pulpit" that it is difficult (and perhaps a bit unfair) to single out any one of them. However, in a society that seems obsessed with rank-ordered lists, if I had to select anything for the "top of the pile," it would be the way in which MTT has cultivated an audience for Mahler that is as enthusiastic as it is faithful. Say what you want about ours being the culture of the sound-byte (not to mention our craving for quick-and-dirty "answers," satisfied in such much abundance by Google and Wikipedia), it is not easy to find a Mahler composition that clocks in at less than sixty minutes. Yet when MTT scheduled the Mahler seventh (about one hour and twenty minutes on the Solti Chicago recording and closer to an hour and a half for Sinopoli and the Philharmonia), by the beginning of this month no seats were left for sale for the three performances; and a fourth performance was added (tonight at 7 PM, if any seats are still available)! Furthermore, it is not just that they have come because MTT has "built it." At every Mahler performance I have attended, the audience has sat with a rapt attention that is almost impossible to find anywhere these days. (That includes other performances at Davies Hall. One of MTT's less successful endeavors has been to play more Webern. He has developed an excellent command of Webern's six orchestral pieces. In their entirety these require less then ten minutes, but the nervous coughing is usually well under way before the first minute has elapsed!)

Personally, I have been hooked on Mahler for over 45 years. My mother had an uncle who used to buy all sorts of vinyl recordings without any idea what was on them. He bought two of the Scherchen Westminster albums: one had the fifth and the first movement of the tenth; the other had the seventh. When he realized he could not stand either of them, he gave them both to me. All it took was the opening fanfare of the fifth to turn me into the fanatic. Getting to know the seventh took some time, particularly since there was a major studio editing blunder in the first movement; but, through the accessibility of the remaining four moments, it did not take long for me to get my head around the first.

These days I crave both compositions and performances that challenge my capacity for understanding, which is to say that my listening habits are not that different from my reading habits. When, after a recent recital I attended, pianist Peter Grunberg (who also happens to be MTT's assistant) confessed to having dropped one of the variations from the 32 in Beethoven's C minor set (WoO 80), I found myself thinking about whether there was some over-arching plan to the ordering of the variations that would facilitate holding them all in your head. That is the way I try to think about the Mahler seventh, particularly since, in the tradition of Wagner's Ring (perhaps the most challenging example of all), one of the final gestures of the last movement takes you right back to where you began in the first movement. I am still wrestling with this symphony, but it is a real asset to have a conductor like MTT around to lead me through it on what is beginning to feel like a regular basis!

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