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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Concert Review: Taking on the World

Zubin Mehta conducts the sprawling Mahler Third.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor for life Zubin Mehta.
Photo © 2017 Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
The universe is a big place. Really big. And it is the subject matter of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3. On Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (where he holds the post of Conductor for Life) took on this enormous, world-embracing work, which at 100 minutes (and six movements) is still the longest symphony to hold a place in the standard orchestral repertory. Performances require two choirs and a contralto soloist, making it a rarity on the concert stage.

The Third marks the climax of Mahler's first creative period (which covers his early work and his first four symphonies.) In it, the composer attempted to depict all of reality itself, building a tiered cosmology of sound that started with the awakening of primal nature and the eruption of mountains from the earth. This first movement, which can run 35 minutes, is challenging for the conductor and players, veering from slow funeral procession to a wild, rough-and-tumble celebration, the sound of Summer swaggering into the listener's awareness in the guise of a raucous marching band.

Mr. Mehta is a favorite in New York, having held the position of music director of the New York Philharmonic for 13 years (1978-1991.) However, New Yorkers know the Israel Philharmonic by their reputation, as the orchestra that Leonard Bernstein played a role in founding and as the classical voice of their great country. Aside from a few watery notes in the horns (and one disastrous entry from the trombones) they acquitted themselves well in this Brobdingnagian music. Mahler strips the orchestra down to the muffled stroke of the bass drum, before adding brass, wind and finally strings to his jolly parade. Working without a score, Mr. Mehta produced a performance that made sense of this giant structure and brought the climax of the work home with maximum dramatic impact.

Of course, there were still five movements to go. Conductor and orchestra eschewed the traditional pause before leaping into the second movement, a lilting minuet in which the composer portrays flowers nodding gently in the summer breeze of an Austrian meadow. This is always a bit of a letdown after the slam-bang-oom-pah-pah of the opening, but it gave the listener a chance to mentally recuperate as they climbed Mahler's cosmic ladder.

The third movement is a scherzo and in its own way as challenging as the opening. Here, the woodwinds play a childlike theme answered by the brass: woodland animals at play with bird-songs and a lilting trio section. There is a key sequence for post-horn (played here by the principal trumpet, offstage) which is particularly effective, capturing the isolation of man in nature. The work takes a turn toward the end of this movement, with a huge chord rising out of the orchestra as if consciousness is finally dawning, a temporary return to the primal roaring of the opening that prepares the listener for the work's new direction.

The fourth movement is the slowest and most haunting: a setting of Friedrich Nietzsche's "O mensch, gib' acht", sung slowly by contralto soloist Mihoko Fujimura. Like Beethoven's Ninth, what was abstract melody is now revealed to have words. Here under Mr. Mehta it was a dramatic masterstroke, and Ms. Fujimura's deep and bell-like voice was the ideal messenger. Bells also predominate in the choral movement that follows, with the singers of the MasterVoices and the Manhattan Girls' Chorus singing an onomatopoeic  "Bim! Bom!" This is "Es sungen drei Engel einen süßen Gesang" a setting of one of the Wunderhorn songs that takes the listener's journey upward into the heavenly vault.

Mahler ended his giant Third with a  second slow movement: a singing Adagio that begins in the cellos and is taken up by the whole orchestra. He was trying to depict the mind of a supreme being here. Sitting in the concert hall, one has the sense of extraordinary purpose and of a journey completed at this point, and of understanding. The oddities and surges of the first movement returned and the thematic material was given resolution and rest at last. Mr. Mehta and his forces had brought peace and freedom to Mahler's galactic vision, and that is an achievement in itself. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.