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Friday, October 1, 2010

Concert Review: Hammer Crushes You

Alan Gilbert brings the heavy in Mahler's Sixth.
Le maĆ®tre de la marteau: Alan Gilbert. Photo © 2010 Chris Lee.
Thursday night's New York Philharmonic featured Alan Gilbert's unique take on Gustav Mahler's heaviest symphony: the Sixth.
The Sixth is known as Mahler's "Tragic" Symphony, and it climaxes with one of the percussionists setting up a wooden box and whacking it with a really big hammer. The heavy thud is a disturbing sound, as the "hammer of fate" stops the music in its tracks.

Although the opening march suffered from some balance problems, Mr. Gilbert recovered to lead an angular movement that alternated between crashing power and tender caresses in the strings. The famous second theme, a musical depiction of the composer's wife Alma, was played with real tenderness. The "Alma" theme battled with the determined Mahler march, and ultimately lost.

The second movement focused on a dialogue between the oboe and the strings. Sections duetted like lovers under the moon in the Austrian countryside. But the Andante ended on a bitter-sweet note, preparing the audience for the darkness that was about to fall. The Scherzo roared, shuddered and stomped before lurching into a series of twisted waltzes in the two trio sections. This is Mahler at his rawest, achieving a level of pathos that he would not reach again until his Ninth Symphony.

The finale, featuring the three hammer blows, was slow to develop, deliberately frustrating the listener. As the hero struggled towards glory and found love, the hammer came crashing down. The sickening, heavy thud was played by percussionist Daniel Druckman who whacked a giant mallet into a wooden box.

The hammer's impact is a violent, disturbing effect. Heard three times, it obliterates the music's progress and fells the hero in his tracks. Mahler may have planned for as many as five hammer strikes originally. He then decided on three, but settled on two for superstitious reasons. Leonard Bernstein popularized the addition of a dramatic third blow. In Mr. Gilbert's sure hands, the Sixth had a bruising power of its own, a message of universal despair that echoes in the heart.

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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.