An ecstatic Mahler Second introduces the Athens Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall

Fri Oct 11, 2019 at 5:27 pm
Yiannis Hadjiloizou conducted the Athens Philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Fadi Kheir

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, with its powerful message of comfort in the face of suffering and death, has become a work of choice for commemorating the world-shaking events of September 11, 2001. Though barely mentioned in the printed program, that terrible day loomed over Thursday’s strong and moving performance of the symphony in Carnegie Hall by the Athens Philharmonic, led by its founder, Yiannis Hadjiloizou.

Only a separate insert of program notes in Greek and funding credits served to remind listeners that the concert was in support of efforts to complete construction of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at New York’s Ground Zero, replacing the modest church that was destroyed in the attack. The project, the last new building in the attack zone, has been stalled for years by cost overruns.

In a brief welcome message in the program, the concert’s sponsor, Katerina Nafplioti Panagopoulos, chose instead to write about New York as the welcomer of immigrants, where everyone and no one was a “foreigner,” including herself and her late husband, and even Mahler himself.

The Carnegie Hall appearance was something of a coming-out party for the brand-new orchestra, launched just six months ago by Hadjiloizou, an enterprising, Cyprus-born composer-conductor-pianist credited with founding half a dozen other new ensembles over a 20-year career to date. (The new group is not to be confused with the City of Athens Philharmonic, a government-owned institution that has played at civic events since 1885.)

Before leading what the program called “Athenian musicians of varied ethnic backgrounds” in Mahler’s expression of universal spiritual aspiration, Hadjiloizou indulged in a bit of Greek Cypriot flag-waving with brief pieces by himself and his father, Michael Hadjiloizou.

In the Ballet from the elder Hadjiloizou’s nationalistic opera 9th of July 1821, a lively dance tune in charmingly naïve, sliding-triad harmonies alternated with a sober Christian hymn.

Conductor Hadjiloizou cited Brahms and Dvořák as models for his own Cyprus Dance No. 1, “Servikos,” and one could hear those masters in the brilliant string-driven tutti and colorful episodes for winds. The exotic modal tunes, however, seemed to blow in from further East, the territory of Bartók and Enescu.

Tall and erect, Hadjiloizou cut a Solti-like figure on the podium, though his gestural style was both more fluid and contained than the late Hungarian maestro’s hyperactive style. Under his direction, the Athenians served up the Cypriot appetizers crisply and with flair.

Mahler’s sprawling score was of course a far greater test of the conductor’s vision and the players’ ability to project it, and in the main, the performers did themselves proud, playing with professional skill and a clear sense of what they were about.

They also sounded, quite understandably given the ensemble’s short history, as though they were still getting to know one another. There were disagreements over tuning, especially between strings and horns in the first movement.

And despite a high overall level of execution, the ability to express “as one” the composer’s highly personal emotional world seemed not to have fully developed yet. One wished to feel more the first movement’s stabs of pain, the terror of its sudden fortissimos, as well as the very individual grace and charm of the ensuing Andante moderato.

But the Scherzo, based on Mahler’s song “Saint Anthony of Padua and the Fish Sermon,” left little to be desired in terms of light, swirly textures and delicate balance between the sections. A little more of that glinting, turn-on-a-dime fishy character would have completed the picture.

Photo: Fadi Kheir

Thursday’s performance was blessed with two vocal soloists whose well-matched, mellifluous voices meshed well with the chorus—the NY Choral Society, superbly prepared by David Hayes—after the latter’s long-awaited entrance in the symphony’s closing pages.

Mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas brought a lieder-like sensitivity and diction to “Urlicht,” the work’s fourth movement, simply expressing humanity’s aspiration to be one with God, despite the trials of this world.

In the vast final movement, conductor Hadjiloizou took care to gauge his climaxes, saving the maximum fortissimo for the close, while sustaining a steady tempo on the long and winding road. The players managed some of their finest collective expression of the night, with oboes then horns floating over tender pizzicato in the early going, and imagery of serene heaven and striving earth emerging clearly as the music went on.

The Choral Society’s super-pianissimo first entrance was ravishing, as was the way soprano Larisa Martínez’s clear voice floated heavenward with them. Both singers drew on generous reserves of power as the movement’s ecstatic final crescendo got under way.

As it has on memorial occasions over the decades, Mahler’s full-throated cry of “Aufersteh’n!” (Rise again!) lifted spirits—and in this case, perhaps also hopes for the little church at Ground Zero.

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