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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Concert Review: The Flight of the Intruder

Andris Nelsons conducts the Mahler Fifth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Håkan Hardenberger (left) with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Photo © 2017 Boston Symphony Orchestra by Dominick Reuter.
It's amazing what a century can do.

On Monday night, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra visited Carnegie Hall to play two pieces. The first was Aerial, a 1999 trumpet concerto by Austrian enfant terrible HK Gruber.  It was paired with the Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler. However, a hundred years ago, Mahler's music was considered just as radical as Mr. Gruber's work.

Aerial (last heard with the same soloist at the New York Philharmonic in 2010.) is in two movements. It was written by Mr. Gruber for the Swedish virtuoso Håkan Hardenberger. Ever the merry prankster, Mr. Gruber's demands for his soloist include putting down his standard instrument to play a long series of phrases on a cow horn in the first movement, and switching occasionally to piccolo trumpet which sounds an octave higher than the standard instrument. These challenges, and passages for blowing, breathing and singing through his instrument did not faze the soloist.

The first movement, titled “Done with the compass—Done with the chart!" suggests icy Arctic landscape with its strange bird-like solo part that soars high above wintry strings and wind. Mr. Hardenberger sounded like he was having a good deal more fun playing the second movement "Gone Dancing!", a light-footed journey through  Mr. Gruber's kaleidoscopic imagination. Mr. Nelsons supplied vigorous accompaniment with his forces playing beneath Mr. Hardenberger's flight with supple ease.

The Mahler could not have been more different. Sure, the first movement is a funeral march, but Mr. Nelsons set a lugubrious pace that robbed the music of its energy and drive. Yes, the death knell of the beginning was answered with thunderous force from the tutti but this performance did not convince one that this was a real tragic ritual of loss being witnessed. It seemed more like going through the motions, a feeling that would haunt Mr. Nelsons and his troops in the later movements.

The second movement is Janus-like, looking back to the material of the first and seeming to skip ahead to the positive themes that will end this mssive symphony. More gleams of light appeared in the scherzo but a series of further, rapid tempo shifts from Mr. Nelsons egan to make this sprawling movement seem disorganized and chaotic. As this was the kind of playing tht kept Mahler out of the repertory for many years, it was not an auspicious beginning.

The Adagietto is the most famous thing Mahler ever wrote. A straight-up love song to Alma Schindler, it was heard hear with a slow and compelling performance that underlined the romantic nature of this music. The low instruments of the BSO, particularly the cellos stepped up here to unroll a plush carpet of sound. Here, Mr. Nelsons' undramatic approach could do no wrong.

The finale takes the funeral material of the symphonys start and turns it into the impetus for a wild fgal ceebration by soe slightly toasted German twn band. The huge Boston forces flled this role easily, revelling in the rustic violin saws, nimble capering winds and finally the ungainly laughter of the trumpets and horns. As the audience stood to cheer the performance it is useful to remember that music lovers met Mahler with confusion and disdain many years ago. For the HK Grubers of the world, acceptance might happen anytime.

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