the devastating final movement of the Mahler
Sixth, I pitied the patrons who were
seated immediately behind the orchestra, overlooking
a large wooden block at the back of the Los
Angeles Philharmonicís percussion section.
As the moment grew near for the first of the
two "hammer blows of Fate," the
musician grasped an ominous-looking mallet,
and then like an executioner ascending the
gallows, walked up two steps, hoisted the
hammer over his shoulder, paused for his cue,
and then smacked the box like one of those
"Test Your Strength!" challenges
at a county fair. I felt a bit guilty being
amused by the reactions of a couple of people
who were caught off guard by the detonation.
conclusion of the second of two performances
I heard, a friend said with a smirk, "You
flew across the entire continental United
StatesÖto hear this!" If not the
last word in uplifting good cheer -- five
of us were celebrating the writerís birthday
Ė Mahlerís Sixth definitely is
the last word in orchestral virtuosity, and
the shockwaves it leaves can be exhilarating.
And there was little doubt that this was a
performance led by someone who deeply believes
in this work. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted
and recorded this piece in the days immediately
following September 11, 2001, a brave move
that not only acknowledged the Sixthís
cathartic power, but in a more mundane sense
demonstrated that terrorists would not be
allowed to affect "our regularly scheduled
programming." In the furious, over-the-top
result, Mahlerís dark mirror and the overwhelming
misery of the day fused like a cauterized
clear-sighted phrasing, heroic stamina, and
precise instructions brought out the best
in the Los Angeles musicians, who sounded
glorious in their spectacular new home. The
symphony is scored for a mammoth orchestra
-- the woodwind section alone is the size
of a small chamber ensemble -- and the sheer
sound of all the activity is one of the composerís
greatest thrill rides.
sprawling opening, marked "Allegro energico,"
Thomasí swift start gave me goosebumps, and
things only got better. With masterly balancing,
he made the most of the textures that careen
violently back and forth between tense marches
that collide and subside with increasing desperation,
and the soaring, almost kitschy-sounding arcs
of broadly romantic, even sentimental melodies.
This ambiguous happiness is about as optimistic
as the Sixth ever gets, but just as
its heroism seems to peak it is quickly battered
down, as if the group were at war with itself.
Throughout, Thomas seemed completely focused,
never lost sight of the overall architecture,
and ended the movement with a glittering,
breathless coda that seemed to leave the audience
the dust settled, the gorgeous, elegiac "Andante"
seemed to materialize out of nowhere, helped
by the fact that it begins in an entirely
different key. Plaintive and seductive, it
seemed to have a worried subtext, as if the
composer were suggesting that time is running
out and itís time to try another avenue: if
outright bravery doesnít work, try love and
compassion. This is one of the most intensely
beautiful idylls in Mahlerís output, and one
of my companions was wiping tears from his
eyes as it drew to its gentle close.
then the mood changed completely. Thomas has
joined the ranks of conductors who place the
raw "Scherzo" third, after the "Andante"
rather than the other way around. With the
brittle, bone-rattling "Scherzo"
coming later, it seemed to make a mockery
of everything, sneering not only at
the opening movement and its attempt at victory,
but at the intense passion of the "Andante"
as well. As a result the sense of loss began
to set in even sooner, and by the time the
final movement began, any kind of hope or
solace seemed very far away.
I am not the only person who is thinking that
the Walt Disney Concert Hall is revealing
the Los Angeles group to be one of the countryís
best orchestras. They certainly sounded like
it here, as well as in the Mahler Second
a few weeks
earlier. From concertmaster Martin Chalifourís
graceful solos, to some riveting work by oboist
Marion Arthur Kuszyk, to the positively regal
gleam of Donald Greenís trumpet, the musicians
just played magnificently, with real fire.
And itís hard not to replay images of the
string section making short work of Mahlerís
seemingly nonstop rivers of notes.
final movement is a turbulent downward spiral
-- a vast whirlpool -- with the ever-darkening
orchestra being sucked down some cosmic drain.
Despite being pressed to even more virtuosic
turns (afterward several musicians mentioned
the frighteningly difficult passages in the
last few pages), it all feels like frantic
clawing, like being buried alive. Near the
end, instead of a third hammer blow we get
a crash on a giant gong that seems to swallow
up the orchestra, and as if briefly knocked
unconscious, the group struggles upward in
a final convulsive spasm, trying valiantly
to regain its composure. Then, recalling the
very beginning of the symphony, the opening
movement march returns, surging now almost
sarcastically, before the tumult subsides
and dwindles down to the low brasses. Thomasí
implacable control of all of this wildness
was quite impressive, and kudos to the excellent
Norman Pearson on tuba, playing a profound
role with gentle understatement.
energy is finally drained out, all thatís
left are the double basses, murmuring quietly,
as if some dying animal were writhing on the
ground. And then, just when we think we can
bear no more, the last massive, brazen outburst
-- a shockingly loud minor chord that Thomas
launched with a deceptively tight, small gesture
-- freezes our despair and says, no, despite
our aching and longing, ultimately we are
right back where we began.