Review: Mahler’s Fifth, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Saturday, April 16 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop, conductor

Kevin Puts, The City (2016, with film by James Bartolomeo)
Mahler, Symphony No. 5 (1902)

Tonight I was upgraded to the expensive seats at Carnegie Hall for the first time, which was likely due a serendipitous mistake.  As I left for the concert, I had forgotten to bring my wallet.  By the time I realized this and retrieved my wallet, I was 20 minutes behind schedule and barely made it to the venue on time.  Since the concert was about to start, it seemed that the kind gentleman at the box office decided that he might as well sell me a prime orchestra-level seat for the rush ticket price.  Had I arrived 20 minutes earlier, I probably would have been sold a restricted view third tier seat, which is what normally happens.  Of course, it helped that the concert was nowhere near sold out, so don’t try this at home, or at the next Berlin Philharmonic appearance in New York.

Speaking of which, it is a shame that this excellent program by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra did not sell out, as it featured quite possibly the best programming any American orchestra brought to Carnegie Hall all season.  The opening piece was a Carnegie Hall co-commission, which I was completely ready to dismiss as a publicity stunt to please the anti-canon New York Times critics, but it turned out to be a worthy composition poignant in its subject and impeccable in its execution.  Being a multimedia collaboration, a film montage of mostly stock footage was shown as well, which probably helped in audience engagement (a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately in my day job).  Ostensibly the project explores the way cities, particularly Baltimore, have evolved over the past century, but as Ms. Alsop explained, when the project started three years ago, the artists involved could not have predicted the strife and turmoil that Baltimore would see, and they ended up traversing unexpected directions.  The result was quite striking, at least visually.  The first half of the film presented iconic sights of Baltimore, past and present.  It seemed to me that the theme is growing pains–footage of demolitions contrasted with fireworks, for instance–in the greater context of the city’s cultural history.  There were even several thematic shots of the Baltimore Orioles, particularly Cal Ripken Jr.  (The three subjects that I’m most familiar with are math, classical music, and baseball.  Math overlaps quite a bit with both classical music and baseball, but the intersection of the latter two had been empty, until tonight.)  Then the subject of the film changed abruptly to the 2015 Baltimore riots, after which the screen went black for several minutes while the orchestra played a stormy developmental section.  When the film resumed, the theme was recovery through music and featured this very orchestra in a self-referential way.  It was not subtle, as if any ability to be such was compromised due to the sudden narrative shift forced by recent events, but both the film and the music–at times unsettling and elegiac, at times exultant and hopeful–were effective and constitute a premier example of how multimedia art can be done in the 21st century.

It’s not often that Mahler, particularly Mahler’s Fifth, would be the less memorable part of a program, and if this was the case on this evening, it was not due to any shortcomings on the part of the orchestra or its conductor (the trumpet’s shaky opening notwithstanding).  Actually, I would not have guessed it prior to the concert, but programmatically Mahler’s Fifth pairs very well with The City, as both are intimate yet larger than life journeys from darkness to light.  Moreover, the dates of the two pieces essentially bookend the period covered in the film montage.  In any case, every time I listen to Mahler’s Fifth, I always find myself thinking within the first ten minutes that this is the greatest symphony ever composed.  And maybe it is.  If nothing else, it is the culmination of a century and a half of Austro-German canon: you can hear Beethoven, you can hear Brahms, you can hear Schumann, and if you listened to Bruckner, I’m sure you can hear him too.  But then I always zone out around the third movement when Mahler switches from the funeral dirge to the more upbeat scherzo.  The first movement is cosmic, almost Wagnerian, and the second movement is reminiscent of Beethoven’s Seventh in theme if not execution, as affirmation ultimately could not escape the despair spilled over from the opening.  But the scherzo is a somewhat clunky transition.  There is a waltz, but also a child’s song in there somewhere, I think, which a lesser mind such as mine cannot reconcile with the surrounding movements.  On the other hand, the famed strings-only adagietto was perfection, both as it was composed and as it was performed.  The program notes claim that it was a love letter to the composer’s wife Alma and that it exudes sensuous joy.  I’m not sure I get that, at least not the joy part.  To me, the adagietto invokes an exquisite sense of loss, not quite as achingly tender as the adagio from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, but a study in longing nevertheless.  Themes from the adagietto would eventually return in the finale, by now sped up and bathed in the life-affirming D major key (five movements ago, the symphony had opened in C-sharp minor) as the journey from tragedy to triumph completes.  The final notes of this sweeping triumph threaten to get out of control under lesser batons, but Ms. Alsop was more than competent in guiding the orchestra and the music through the demolitions and fireworks of the finale and achieving a moment of true apotheosis.  A satisfying evening all around.
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