Philadelphia classical music events, discussion, and directory
If Verizon Hall was filled to near-capacity for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance on Friday night, I think that this was due more to the presence of Music Director Designate, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (YNS), on the podium and at the harpsichord, than to the program: Mahler’s 6th Symphony and J.S. Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto. YNS’s last Philadelphia Orchestra appearance, when he conducted Brahms’ German Requiem, and Mozart’s 40th Symphony, was equally well-attended. However, the synergy of YNS plus Mahler heightened audience expectations, and resulted in a barrage of applause and bravos at the end of the Symphony that could have gone on, forever.
The current audience’s love affair with Mahler’s music began around 1960, the centennial year of the composer’s birth. Leonard Bernstein, a conductor from two generations post-Mahler, led the charge to claim a position of symphonic preeminence for the (then) seldom-performed works of this late-romantic composer. Since then, there have been umpteen complete recordings made of Mahler’s nine symphonies, the symphonic vocal work, Das Lied von der Erde, and a 10th symphony, that was unfinished at the time of Mahler’s death, but subsequently completed by other hands. Why Mahler’s music has become popular (insofar as it is possible for classical music to be popular), and loved by so many, is a subject worthy of study. I find the popularity of his symphonic music counterintuitive.
First, all the symphonies are relatively long works. The sixth symphony runs approximately 80-85 minutes. This is typical for Mahler, being about the same as the “Symphony of a Thousand”, and between 5-10 minutes shorter than the 3rd Symphony (all this dependent upon who is conducting). By comparison, the longest symphony composed by Beethoven was the 9th, which clocks in at about 70 minutes. Fifteen minutes difference between the durations of two works of genius would not seem to be important in the cosmic scheme of things. However, there was a time when a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was a special event, for an audience that was more accustomed to sitting still for no longer than required to hear the 30 minute-long 5th symphony.
As well, Mahler’s symphonic music is not “easy listening”. True, he employs beautiful melodies, some recognizable from his songs (although, not in the 6th), and his works are all tonal. However, Mahler presents greater challenges to the audience, when compared to the works of most of his predecessors in the Austro-Germanic tradition. He continued in the direction charted by Liszt and Wagner, making use of chromaticism to create tension and heightened emotions, and to extend the melodic line. Thus, his music is less about sending the audience home with something to hum, than about providing a longer and more complex narrative.
At this point, I can hear some people ask, “Aren’t these qualities that one would expect to find in great music, and that contribute to a more meaningful experience?” The answer to that question is, “yes”, but there is other music from the same time period that has most of these same qualities, but is not nearly as popular with today’s audiences, as is the music of Mahler. I’m thinking here of the symphonic music of Richard Strauss. This is not to say that the music of Strauss is unpopular, but, compared to Mahler’s symphonies, Strauss’ six tone poems and two symphonies are played less frequently in the concert hall, and are the subject of fewer recordings, today. This is the reverse of the situation that prevailed in the first half of the 20th century.
What then accounts for the tumultuous reception, which Friday night’s concert audience accorded Mahler’s 6th Symphony, subtitled, “Tragic”? Yes, the audience is proud of their orchestra, and desperately wants its new, young conductor to be a success. But, one cannot deny the passion that was felt for Mahler’s music. I think that it is the sentiments that Mahler expresses, which resonate so strongly with today’s audiences. The despair, pain and sadness that are evoked by the defeat of Mahler’s “hero” by the hammer blows of fate, are more real to today’s audiences than is the triumphant success of the hero in Ein Heldenleben.