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S & H International Concert Review

Stephen Hartke: Symphony No. 3, Mahler: Symphony No. 5: The Hilliard Ensemble, New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY, September 23, 2003 (BH)


All but blowing the roof off Avery Fisher Hall, Lorin Maazel ended his first subscription concerts of the new season with a dashingly played Mahler Fifth, overflowing with details, in an unexpectedly involving evening that had the audience cheering at the end. From the opening bars led by Philip Smith’s laser-like trumpet, the entire ensemble sounded strongly focused, even in this hall’s sometimes-strange acoustic. But more on that in a minute.

The concert began with a new work, Stephen Hartke’s Symphony No.3, written as a response to September 11 but with a purpose and style that could not be more different from John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, presented last year. Hartke chose a medieval poem, The Ruin, that describes images of a great city years after its destruction, and then gave the text to four vocalists, in this case the expert Hilliard Ensemble, well-known for its dedication to early music. The opening chord, quietly intoned on the word ‘wondrous’, only added to the ancient, timeless feel. Some apparent balance problems on opening night had been solved and the four soloists blended easily with the orchestra’s shimmering, modal harmonies. I felt an almost immediate empathy, and apparently many others in the audience did as well, judging from the enthusiastic response.

But the Mahler after intermission was the biggest surprise. I have heard reports of Maazel’s so-called wilfulness -- stretching lines out of shape, micro-managing phrases, sacrificing the big picture – but none of this seemed to be in evidence when I was there. If anything, the performance might have been too streamlined for those who prefer their Mahler with a few more rough edges. Yes, there were the occasional moments when Maazel lingered over a passage here and there, but for me, not enough to disrupt the overall sound picture. As an aside, some of the moments that I find interesting in this work, as elsewhere in Mahler, are those when time seems to stand still – when the piece almost grinds to a halt, pausing to evoke a completely different mood for a moment or two, before rising up to resume, or to dash off in yet another direction. Yes, the score has plenty of forward motion, but there are also those faraway moments, almost meditative, as if the composer were inviting us to stop for a moment of contemplation.

The other distinguishing characteristic of the evening, aside from the superbly confident playing, was the emphasis on exposing more of the contrapuntal structural beams. Part of the genius of this score is that it allows each interpreter to find different instrumental lines to bring to the fore, slightly shifting the emphasis. All evening, little figures emerged that I had never noticed before in Mahler’s dense, scurrying writing. And Maazel also has a knack for nailing big moments. In the final Rondo, the brass section almost seemed to burst into the room, like some huge galloping animal bearing the final chorale.

This symphony is gorgeous, radiant, and chockfull of pitfalls. No one is spared perilous solo entrances, extreme registers, and sudden key changes, but in this instance the orchestra, particularly the brass section, seemed to negotiate even the most demanding passages with little or no strain. This was Mahler as a gleaming supersonic jet -- and on occasion a little ride on the Concorde can be enormous fun.

Bruce Hodges




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