MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Fascinating Boulez, Problematic Mahler 6

It’s good to have Ludovic Morlot back in town for his first Seattle Symphony program since September’s marvelous all-Ravel feast. And there’s been a lot of interest building up for this week’s offering, since – well, that’s usually the case with a Mahler symphony (even if the over-programming of Mahler in general is tempting burnout), but all the more since Maestro Morlot has been approaching this rep with understandable caution.

But first to the program’s “hors d’oeuvre,” Nos. 1-4 of the Notations by Pierre Boulez. This is prime Morlot territory: thrillingly prismatic music, brimming with intellectual and sensual complexities that complement rather than cancel each other out. The orchestra, massively expanded and crowding the entire stage to realize Boulez’s scoring requirements, played the first four of this set of miniatures originally written as a sequence of 12 for solo piano (back in 1945). Boulez began revisiting these early works decades later and so far has completed orchestral elaborations of seven of them. In their orchestral guise, they resemble lavish plants grown from the starker seeds of the piano originals.

Morlot gave a brief, excellent introduction to their concept and design and paired each of the four with renditions of the originals by pianist Kimberly Russ. I’ve never understood why some of my fellow critics kvetch about this sort of commentary from the podium during a concert. Morlot’s manner isn’t even remotely condescending, and he’s able to home in on a few pregnant details that really do enhance listening.

And Boulez is hardly a familiar quantity in Seattle. This was the first time I’ve heard the SSO grapple with music by the French maverick; is it possible Boulez has never been programmed in its history? Quel scandale! Regarding his ongoing investigation of French musical tradition with the orchestra, Morlot remarked that to overlook Boulez would be like visiting Paris “and not going to see the Eiffel Tower.”

The pieces in Notations – all related to a shared 12-note theme – are epigrammatic and fleeting, yet so frighteningly complicated in their working out (the articulation of harmonic, rhythmic, and textural layers) that it’s like a speeded-up musical Big Bang, tracing vast consequences from simple origins. Or so it seemed in Morlot’s meticulous account. Most impressive for me was his ability to convey a graspable sense of passion and drama alongside Boulez the “researcher” of sounds.

In his “Ask the Artist” conversation after the concert, Morlot mentioned that he’d initially hoped to get Boulez to come to Seattle to conduct this program himself, thus giving the SSO a direct connection to the tradition Boulez still embodies. (Now 88, the French maestro’s health essentially precludes such travel.) Yes, irony of ironies, the firebrand revolutionary of yore is one of the last keepers of a tradition connected both to French modernism from Debussy onwards and to Schoenberg and his Vienna colleagues. (Berg was particularly fascinated by the music of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.)

Morlot and SSO rehearsing Mahler 6

Morlot and SSO rehearsing Mahler 6

I found this interpretation of the Mahler Sixth only halfway satisfying – and, oddly, in a completely unpredicted way. Long one of the most marginalized of his symphonies, the Sixth has actually received a good deal of advocacy over the past 15 years or so. Michael Tilson Thomas inaugurated his complete cycle with the San Francisco Symphony with No. 6 (on September 12, 2001, no less), winning a Grammy. Since that year the SSO’s conductor laureate Gerard Schwarz has led two Mahler Sixths (2001, 2008).

Presenting the Boulez as an entrée results in the interesting effect of seeing the orchestra downsize a tad for the Sixth, which happens to employ the largest orchestra Mahler ever called for (in purely instrumental terms – obviously excluding the Eighth, with its ginormous choral forces). The SSO even managed to procure one of the cowbells originally used for the premiere in 1906. (I’ve got to investigate that back story.)

Yet just a few paces into the grim straitjacket march-time opening the first movement, Morlot uncharacteristically failed to achieve the sort of sonic balance you can usually count on him to effect – a tremendously challenging task in this score, to be sure. Morlot’s modus operandi in general is precisely not to go for the obvious “throughline” but to tune us in to the nuances of multiple layers and textures interacting, but too many of the accents seemed tentative, a “work in progress,” so that the players got bogged down in local details and the big picture lost focus.

Breathtaking, sensitively shaped moments awaited in the enormous development section – it’s like a dream sequence escaping from the harsh “real world” surrounding it – and, along with many admirable solos, concertmaster Alexander Velinzon’s contributions enraptured the ear. Still, as a whole the first movement lacked the persuasiveness and sheer, unrelenting terror it needs to set the symphony on course.

The Scherzo sounded even more bogged down by moment-to-moment bursts of color and emotion without a convincing larger context: all-too-careful playing that just didn’t take fire with any sense of risk. But with the Andante – Morlot chose Mahler’s original order for the inner movements – the long delay until reaching this oasis paid off. The SSO became not just thoroughly engaged, but convincing and supremely eloquent. Morlot took a relatively rapid pace, allowing the beauty of this music to breathe as simply as a song instead of relying on exaggerated distensions.

Cowbells used by Seattle Symphony (including one from 1906 premiere of No. 6)

Cowbells used by Seattle Symphony (including one from 1906 premiere of No. 6)

And then what really took me by surprise: in every live performance of the Sixth I’ve heard, it’s in the immense sound world of the finale that everyone loses steam, exhausted and struggling just to make it through. But this was the most exhilarating playing of the evening, starting with the hallucinogenic sweep of colors with which Mahler launches this enigmatic movement.

Here Morlot guided the musicians through an enthralling labyrinth of events which really did begin to cohere and connect. In the coda, the threnody of brass sustained enough mystery to hint, however slightly, at a possible hopeful outcome so that the shock of Mahler’s most tragic symphonic ending had a thrilling dramatic impact.

A quick note on the other chief musicological controversy – besides the order of the movements – which is part of the Sixth’s performance tradition. Morlot chose the version with two rather than three “hammerblows” in the finale, later explaining that withholding the third ax-like shattering intensifies the suspense. The two blows we heard were in any case both sonically and visually memorable, thanks to the impressive box and hammer percussionist Michael Werner (see video at top).

There’s one more chance to experience this program live: on Saturday, 9 November 2013, at 8.00 pm. Tickets here.

(C) 2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Judith Cohen says:

    Great review, Thomas!!! I enjoyed it so much and am glad I am also an official subscriber to your blog. Where did you get that cool picture of the cowbells? I talked with one of the clarinetists in the symphony and she said she felt that the Mahler never quite got WILD enough in a certain way. BUT she also said(having done a bunch of Mahler with Schwartz over the years) that Gerry’s interpretations always felt dominated by anger and aggression, and she loves the way Morlot is digging deep for the color. AND, he is not quite 40 yet and has not done tons of Mahler. Take care, Judith Date: Fri, 8 Nov 2013 22:39:05 +0000 To: judithrcohen@hotmail.com

    • Thomas May says:

      Thanks for reading, Judith, and for sharing your comments. I’m so glad you got to hear the concert. Seattle Symphony tweeted those images – I especially love the one of the cowbells, too.

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