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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Concert Review: A Very Unexpected Journey

Simone Young leads the New York Philharmonic in the Mahler Sixth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Big Bang: Daniel Druckman swings the hammer at the climax of the Mahler Sixth.
Photo by Caitlin Ochs © 2019 The New York Philharmonic.
Nobody expected that this would be the week that Simone Young would make her long-awaited return to the New York Philharmonic. The Australian conductor, acclaimed for her work with the Hamburg Philharmonic, had not taken the podium at David Geffen Hall in twenty-one years. (However. she is on the schedule for next season, leading Elgar and Strauss.)  Ms. Young is no stranger to New York audiences, but most of her conducting engagements in this city have been at the Metropolitan Opera, and this is her first appearance with the orchestra since her debut in 1998.

She was hurriedly chosen this week to step in for music director Jaap van Zweden. (He is recuperating from a second degree burn and must rest for a week on doctors orders.) Her assignment: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor, a heavyweight work known for its tragic tone--unique in Mahler's output. This symphony is best known for its unique sound effect: a giant wooden hammer that is used to strike a heavy wooden box. (It sounds like you'd expect: a terrible, sickening thud.) The hammer lands three times, at climactic moments in the final movement. 

From the hard-charging first bars of the opening Allegro, Ms. Young struck a delicate balance, staking her claim to that murky musical territory where few Mahler conductors fear to tread. This lies somewhere between rigid orchestral precision and gut-punch emotions. The Philharmonic responded enthusiastically, as indicated in the slithering, sinuous woodwind figures that wend their way underneath the chugging strings. These figures set up the second subject of the first movement. This is an overwrought love-song to Mahler’s wife Alma, heartbreaking and piquant.

The first movement of this symphony alternates between the relentless rhythmic theme and the romantic outpouring. Like an unwanted task that needs doing, the insistent martial beat returns again and again, making each assault in a new orchestral disguise each time. The transitions between the two ideas are guarded by a fierce six-note timpani theme that will repeat throughout each movement of the work, a Mahlerian idée-fixe. As the first movement wound and pounded to its close, once could sense the energy and anticipation rising in the hall for what was to come.

Ms. Young did not disappoint. She chose to put the Scherzo of the symphony next. (Following the premiere, Mahler switched the order of the second and third movements, but it is common practice to let the conductor decide which order they prefer.) Its herky-jerky rhythms were like a carousel spinning wildly in the dark, providing no emotional solace to the listener. Small comfort arrived in the central trio section of the movement, gentle and soothing before the nightmarish music returned. The woodwinds again were featured, tracing delicate textures through the darkness against the insistent, unsettling rhythms. Finally the scherzo wheezed, stuttered and stopped, another harbinger of the doom that would fall at the end of the work.

If there is a safe harbor in this symphony it is the third movement. This slow-rolling Adagio develops delicately around a mournful figure that unwinds itself in a leisurely manner. Ms. Young nurtured and grew this little acorn of sound into a stout orchestral oak. The players climbed to to a giant, brassy climax with eloquent tone from the massed horns. Unusually in this performance, the Philharmonic horn players were seated at deep stage right, far from their compatriots on the trumpets, trombones and tuba. This spatial seating produced dividends in each movement, as did the little chorales of on and off-stage cowbells suggesting a longing for innocence amidst the turmoil of this work.

The final movement of this symphony is kind of like a late season episode of the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones. Mighty forces are summoned, armies are arrayed to march into battle. And then it goes horribly wrong and everybody “dies.” The music momentum is literally interrupted at its climactic moments by the giant hammer, striking down like the first of a higher power stopping any heroic progress dead. (This intentional depiction of disaster was originally written into Mahler’s score three times, but the composer opted to remove the third blow from the work.) Ms. Young showed no such restraint, having percussionist Daniel Druckman land each of the blows with deadly precision, crushing the music three times in mid-roar. The last notes tottered, staggered and fell dead. She dropped her arms, finished.

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