Cleveland Orchestra’s Mahler Ninth eventually achieves a fine weirdness

Wed Jan 24, 2018 at 12:29 pm
Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Cleveland Orchestra Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. File photo: Roger Mastroianni

Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Cleveland Orchestra Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall.
File photo: Roger Mastroianni

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Hunter Thompson is not the usual guide to a classical music concert, but for Tuesday night’s Carnegie Hall appearance by the Cleveland Orchestra, he seemed an ideal companion.

The subject of the night turned out to be weirdness; Franz Welser-Möst led the orchestra in two pieces that marked out a range of musical and extra-musical weirdness. In the first half this was the local premiere of Johannes Maria Staud’s Stromab, co-commissioned by Carnegie; in the second it was Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.

Stromab is explicitly weird, with a gestation in Staud’s fondness for Algernon Blackwood’s excellent eerie tale, The Willows. The composer wanted to capture the delicious horror of that story, more than the plot itself.

Though different from Lovecraft, Blackwood was one of the greatest of the weird writers. The impression his work makes is more than substantial enough for a composer to transmute into sound. And with a century of wonderful material in classical music, from Russolo’s intonarumori through Ligeti, Penderecki, and John Corigliano’s score for Altered States, it was fair to expect something stimulating.

Instead, Stromab turned out to be ordinary, and mediocre at that. It opened with attractive atmospherics, well produced by the orchestra, but then (in contradiction to Staud’s own program note) turned into an episodic, this-happened-then-this-happened narrative. The means were clichéd, dramatic gestures that were stale long before Hans Zimmer got ahold of them.

One felt that Staud enjoyed a scary story from the comfort of his own home and was not willing to indulge in any of the things that truly frightened him. Or maybe the bump in the night was all he could stand. This was Fantasia without the fears. Even this orchestra couldn’t rescue it—Welser-Möst seemed unable to convey anything truly chilling and there were some glaringly haphazard entrances amid a general lack of involvement.

This was a long-seeming piece followed by a long intermission, and one wondered if that was the cause of the slow start for the Symphony No. 9. If it were a car, it would have been finely tuned and at speed from the start; instead this Mahler ambled along with a certain lack of interest in where it was going.

Everything began properly, with the right dynamics, a walking pace, all the fragmented phrases connected into a longer line. The playing was precise and delicate, but flat—a lovely sound that didn’t glow or carry much expression.

Mahler’s Ninth is a narrative symphony, but an interior one (whereas Stromab was exterior and sequential). In it’s own way it is also deeply weird, because it’s Mahler. The extremes of his personality were an outlier to begin with, and the way he made his music as an explicit depiction of his complex personality and torments remains almost unique in classical music.

There was no weirdness (not even in the strange bass clarinet solo). The note playing was exceptional and quite beautiful, the polyphonic ebb and flow, the way antiphony and counterpoint create the musical equivalent of particles bouncing off one another in a cloud chamber or mixing primary colors, was captivating, even if it wasn’t fully Mahler. One began to feel that this would be a finely played but eminently forgettable performance.

But then something clicked at the second big climax in the first movement, the musicians captured a sense of crisis that moves on to a moment of glory without resolving its internal troubles, the thing that is essential to understanding Mahler. From there the movement deepened in feeling and intensity. The notes carried the urgency of one trying to find an answer to a desperate question.

The performance seemed driven as much from the orchestra stands as from the podium. There were outstanding individual contributions from concertmaster William Preucil, principal violist Wesley Collins, and most of all from flutist Joshua Smith, whose long solo in the first movement was one of the great individual moments heard in a symphony concert in years in New York.

Welser-Möst was at the head of it all, though not always successfully. The Ländler movement began with good energy, but was bottled up by disorganized ensemble rhythms and tempos. But the final section returned the orchestra’s precision and wedded it to a wild feeling that continued through the Rondo-Burleske. Welser-Möst whipped the orchestra along with a frenzy that one had never seen from him before.

After a long pause, the Adagio began with a warm, rich amber sound, like the setting sun on the horizon. The orchestra dug deeper into the fraught moments, and pulled back with a sense of devastation, in the quiet, haunting stretches.

The final two movements offered Mahler playing and music making of the highest order. Perhaps this was not enough for a substantial chunk of the audience, who were unable to concentrate nor showed any reservations about not leaving their bad coughing at home. The musically silent pauses towards the conclusion were filled with ringing phones—is it too much to ask listeners to pay attention?

Still, the string playing in the final pages ultimately won out over the distractions, with the glow of one long, deep, last inhale and exhale. Is there anything else anywhere in the arts that so tantalizes us with how we might feel facing the end of all things?

The Cleveland Orchestra plays Haydn’s The Seasons 8 p.m. Wednesday. carnegiehall.org


2 Responses to “Cleveland Orchestra’s Mahler Ninth eventually achieves a fine weirdness”

  1. Posted Jan 24, 2018 at 3:54 pm by Mena

    Great review. Loved the adagio most. And it’s true that the rings and coughing were really disturbing and disappointing. But I can’t blame too much for coughing tho as that’s also a real-life suffering.

  2. Posted Jan 25, 2018 at 1:00 pm by Richard

    Thank you for your comments about the incessant and inconsiderate coughing that marred one of Mahler’s greatest accomplishments. I don’t recall his notating any bodily sounds in the score. It is quite disheartening to go to a concert and feel like you are in the emergency room.

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