Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Andrew Litton, Basil Vendryes, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Gustav Mahler, Silver Ainomäe, Yumi Hwang-Williams
Saturday evening, April 13, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Andrew Litton, performed Gustav Mahler’s enormous Symphony Nr. 6 in a minor. The performance of the Symphony was preceded by a performance of the first movement of Mahler’s (1860- 1911) only surviving piece of chamber music, the Piano Quartet, which is also in a minor. This work was first performed at a private concert in the home of Theodor Billroth, and may have included a violin sonata which was also written by Mahler. However, no manuscript of the violin sonata has ever been found. It is also interesting to speculate that it may have been Billroth who introduced Mahler to Brahms, as Billroth and Brahms were close friends. We do know that Brahms considered Mahler to be an excellent conductor, and told Mahler that he considered his performance of the Mozart opera, Don Giovanni, to be the best he had ever heard.
The performers of the Piano Quartet were Maestro Litton, piano; Yumi Hwang-Williams, violin; Basil Vendryes, viola; and Silver Ainomäe, cello. Alma Mahler (1879- 1964), Mahler’s wife, found this work a few months before she died in 1964, and even though it is rarely performed, it was used in the Hollywood film, Shutter Island. It is a very early work, written when Mahler was only sixteen years of age. In spite of Mahler’s youth, it is still an excellent piece, though one cannot help but think of Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet, which was written when Mendelssohn was also sixteen years of age. And, of course, the Mendelssohn Octet has become one of the great pieces of chamber literature in all of music history. Nonetheless, the Mahler Piano Quartet seems to be a good piece for a young composer. It is in traditional sonata-allegro form, with a new theme introduced in the development section, though I stress this is the first time I have ever heard this work. There is also a relatively short violin cadenza preceding the closing theme at the end of the work which allowed the music to evaporate and end with a final uncomplicated phrase played piano.
The individuals who performed this early work are absolutely superb musicians, and there is no question they enjoyed the soaring melodic line and its long note values. They also seemed to take delight in the fact that this piece, while written by Mahler when he was young, is still a “new” piece, and they were very pleased to perform it. It has none of the harmonic complications of later Mahler, and, in fact, it does not seem to be influenced by any other composer, though it is clearly of the romantic generation. It was fascinating to hear this work performed, and be able to compare it to his Sixth Symphony. Of course, there is a world of difference between the pieces.
After the intermission, the augmented Colorado Symphony Orchestra came out on stage to perform the aforementioned Symphony Nr. 6. I say augmented, because Mahler wrote his pieces for a much larger orchestra than is standard. It is scored for four flutes, four oboes, English horn, four clarinets, bass clarinet, four bassoons, contrabassoon, eight French horns, six trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, two harps, celesta, and strings. This Symphony carries the nickname, Tragic, because it underscores some of the tragedies that occurred in Mahler’s life, even though at the time of its writing, he was the happiest he had ever been. As Andrew Litton states in the program notes, this Symphony was written as a “… piece of darkness, and then his life spectacularly falls apart – it is as if the Symphony is a portent of what’s coming, including his wife cheating on him.” Before the performance began, Maestro Litton gave a lecture to the audience which was much appreciated by those who are unfamiliar with the life of this composer. Mahler came from a large family of thirteen brothers and sisters, and more than half of them passed away from childhood diseases. Mahler stated that it always seemed there was a coffin in the living room. In addition, Mahler suffered from prejudice because he was Jewish, and the orchestras that he conducted (He was known as a conductor who composed on the side, rather than as we know him now: a composer first, and a conductor second) did not like him because he had the reputation of being a perfectionist. He also made the discovery that he had a defective heart valve, and indeed, that is what caused his eventual death. This symphony is also known for its three, huge hammer strokes of fate in the last movement. These were done in the percussion section by John Kinzie striking a large wooden box with a huge, two-handed mallet. It was very easy to tell from the audience reaction that Maestro Andrew Litton’s comments before the performance were quite well received.
The first movement begins with a march whose tight rhythms produce a very ominous tone. And, indeed, the orchestra produced an irrevocable sound, as if one would be completely run down if one stood in the way. I sat there listening and watching Maestro Litton conduct, and I kept asking myself how long has it been since “we” have had a conductor at the CSO who conducted with such precise motions, and such careful attention to detail? And, how long has it been since we have had a conductor at the CSO who has inspired such enthusiasm for the music from the musicians themselves? This was all evident within the first twelve bars of the symphony. The first movement of this symphony is a traditional sonata form. That is to say that there is an exposition section in which the main themes are exposed. That is followed by a development section where the composer makes subtle changes, and some not-so-subtle changes, in the main themes, or “develops” them. There is a third section, called the recapitulation, where the main themes come back in their more or less original form. The march theme, which opened the first movement, is followed, in this work, by a lush and lyrical section which Mahler admitted was a musical description of his new bride, Alma. It is a strong contrast, and that is precisely what Mahler wanted. The orchestra changed its ominous tone to one of luxuriant melody: it was sublime and lyrically intense. The sound produced by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra was remarkable in its intensity and warmth. It truly was as if they were saying to the audience, “See? This is how we can play when we have a conductor who knows and cares about the music. He also knows that every one of us is a superbly trained musician who wants to play this music as badly as he wants to conduct.”
In this performance, Maestro Litton performed the Andante moderato movement as the second movement. I have heard some recordings of this work wherein the Scherzo is performed as the second movement. Whatever it is worth, I am in complete agreement with the Andante moderato being placed in the second movement position. That certainly is the traditional placement for a slow movement, and I have always been unsure of the authority in placing it as the third movement. I believe that it was in Alma Mahler’s memoirs, that she said the slow movement of the symphony depicted their children playing in the living room and in their yard (A word of caution here: for some time, scholars have found discrepancies and inaccuracies in Alma Mahler’s memoirs. Previous to this discovery, her asseverations of her former husband’s work in her memoirs were taken quite seriously and incautiously.). This is a very expressive movement, and in the opening themes, Maestro Litton did not use a baton. He conducted with his bare hands, as if to encourage the orchestra to feel the tangible emotion with which Mahler infused this movement. In the B theme group of this movement, Litton did pick up the baton again, and I rather suspect it was because of the very long melodic line built of long note values in the violins. These long note values were precisely together every time they changed pitch. I would like to point out that it is sometimes considerably more difficult to play slowly with precision and emotion, than it is to play fast and loud. Again, it was as if the Colorado Symphony has discovered a new sense of freedom, as if they were being treated like the incredible musicians which they are.
The third movement Scherzo is a dangerously fast and complicated movement. It is full of rhythmic complexity and presents us with an almost dancelike character. The CSO presented it almost as an evil dance, with a somewhat subdued trio section. The trio section seemed to be based upon the Jewish Ahava Raba mode, which does not have a leading tone that “leads” our ear back to a specific tone. If any of you readers know the order of half steps and whole steps in the harmonic minor scale, you might hear a resemblance between it and the Ahava Raba mode. The harmonic minor scale has eight notes in it. There is a half-step between two and three, five and six, a step and a half-step between six and seven, and a half-step between seven and eight. All the rest are whole steps. However, in the Ahava Raba mode, there is a step and a half between two and three, a half-step between six and seven, and a whole-step between seven and eight. This gives the Ahava Raba mode a certain unsettled feeling to the Western ear.
The fourth movement, which Mahler calls Finale: Sostenuto – Allegro moderato – Allegro energico is enormous. The opening few pages of this movement sound very much as if Mahler had been taught by Claude Debussy. It is positively Impressionistic, but that very quickly dissolves away into another forceful and menacing march. It is in this movement that the three hammer blows of fate are heard, and after the last hammer blow, the movement slowly sinks away to the relative quiet ending.
In characterizing the way the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed at this concert, the first word that comes to mind is enthusiasm. And, of course, one needs enthusiasm to play a piece that is one hour and twenty minutes in length. The feeling of enthusiasm encompassed so many aspects of this performance: enthusiasm for the music (I wondered how many times the members of this orchestra had performed Mahler’s Sixth Symphony), enthusiasm for being allowed to demonstrate that they were marvelous musicians, and, enthusiasm for a new beginning. You must understand that Maestro Andrew Litton, more than some of the recent conductors, trusts the musicianship of this orchestra. And it is also necessary for you readers to understand that there must be a sense of exchange between an orchestra and its conductor. And, as trite as it may sound, it helps immeasurably if they like each other. Andrew Litton certainly fills all of these qualifications, and, to my observation, he is the first conductor that the CSO has had for quite some time to do so.
The Colorado Symphony is, I truly believe, one of the best orchestras in the United States. With Maestro Andrew Litton at the helm, I see no reason why they cannot become one of the best in the world.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Beethoven, Breanne Cutler, Creatures of Prometheus, Gustav Mahler, Kristen Jürgens, Lawrence Golan, Samuel Barber, Travis Jürgens
The performance given Thursday night, March 8, by the Lamont Symphony Orchestra was, in many ways, a very memorable experience. It marked the debut performance of a new graduate student in Orchestral Conducting, Ms. Breanne Cutler. In addition, it was, at least to my knowledge, the first time that the Lamont Symphony – keep in mind they are students – performed Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major, which has been nicknamed “Titan.” These performances were exciting; there is no question about it. However, for me, the highlight of the evening, and perhaps, one of the highlights of the entire concert season, was watching and listening to the performance given by the Lamont Symphony’s Associate Conductor, Travis Jürgens, and his pianist wife, Kristen Jürgens, in their performance of Samuel Barber’s monumental Piano Concerto, Op. 38.
Maestra Breanne Cutler opened the program conducting Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus.
Ms. Cutler is now a graduate student studying with Dr. Lawrence Golan at University of Denver’s prestigious Lamont School of Music. The 2011-2012 season will mark the beginning of Breanne Cutler’s position as Apprentice Conductor with the Helena Symphony Orchestra and her mentorship from Maestro Allan R. Scott. A Montana native, she is a graduate of Montana State University- Bozeman where she was the Assistant Conductor of the MSU Symphony. Ms. Cutler is also a noted classical and jazz vocalist. As a vocal major at Montana State University, she studied with Dr. Jon Harney. Along with winning the 26th MSU Concerto and Aria Competition, she has taken 1st place in both the Lower Division in 2008 and Upper Division in 2010 for the Montana state competition of the National Association for Teachers of Singing. Not only is she an active performer, but also a distinguished leader in the collegiate music community. Her term as Montana State CMENC President has just come to an end, where she was the head of the Montana collegiate division for the National Association of Music Education. She has regularly contributed columns to the Montana music education publication, The Cadenza, which is distributed to music educators across the northwest. At Lamont, she teaches undergraduate courses in conducting. Ms. Cutler has also served as assistant conductor for various productions with Bozeman’s Intermountain Opera.
The Creatures of Prometheus, Beethoven’s only ballet, was begun in the summer of 1800. It is interesting to conjecture why the work had been given to Beethoven by Salvatore Vigano, a ballet dancer and choreographer, because Beethoven was relatively unknown at the time. I can well imagine that Beethoven was eager, not only to accept commissions that came his way, but also to try his hand at dramatic music. At any rate, the ballet was an enormous success, and the premier in 1801 was followed by 15 performances the same year. In 1802, it had 13 performances. However, after that, its popularity dwindled because some dancers and choreographers felt that the score was “too learned” for ballet. The overture did retain its popularity, and has been performed on a fairly regular basis ever since. It is interesting to note that one of the full performances of the ballet was attended by Haydn, and he expressed great pleasure with the ballet, even though he had a few critical remarks. The story of the ballet, as most of you surely realize, regards the Greek God Prometheus and his efforts to have the two creatures he has brought to life instructed in the arts.
I must say that Maestra Cutler entered the stage with a good deal of authority, and that she was absolutely beaming with pleasure as she mounted the podium. It is clear that she likes what she does. This overture begins with some widely spaced chords that require sharp attacks. Cutler’s energy and precision were readily apparent, as she raised herself on her toes, and gave the orchestra some very sharp jabs as cues. The orchestra responded with these forte chords with such precision, that several in the audience, who may not have heard the piece before, were taken by surprise and jumped in their seats. And really, Cutler’s ability at communication, even though she has had conducting experience before she came to Lamont, gave the entire audience a predilection for the style of her conducting. It is energetic and demanding, and it is clear that she knew precisely what she wanted, and was not going to be shy about demanding it from the orchestra. In the performance of this piece, it seemed to me that the outstanding section of the orchestra was the violin section which sounded quite good all the way through the piece. Ms. Cutler did give one late cue which resulted in the woodwinds not together with the strings, but a few beats later everything was back to the way it should have been. And, I must say, that if this performance had been my debut as a conductor, I would have been a little nervous myself. I am most sure that the funny cue resulted from nerves not from inability to conduct, and it was very good to see that the orchestra was doing their best for her, because after all, they are comrades. I, for one, think this was an outstanding debut of a young conductor who shows a great deal of intelligence and composure on the podium. It will be very interesting to watch her develop as she proceeds through the program at the Lamont School. And yes, it was excellent Beethoven.
The Barber Piano Concerto, Op. 38, was the next work performed on Thursday evening’s performance. This Concerto, commissioned by Barber’s publisher, G. Schirmer, for their 100th anniversary, is one of the most important pieces of the 20th century. I am constantly surprised that in spite of its eminence, its beauty, and its incredible difficulty, that it is not mentioned in many books whose main topic is piano literature. This is doubly surprising, because Samuel Barber was known as a very gifted composer which was evident from the very start of his career. His First Symphony, Op. 9, was written when he was 26. The Concerto was commissioned in 1959, and Barber began working on it in March of 1960. However, his work on the piece was partially delayed by a period of depression following the death of his sister. Barber worked very closely with John Browning (Browning was Barber’s favorite pianist at the time, and was one of three American pianists including Rosalyn Turek and Byron Janis, who achieved great prominence in the world as pianists, and whose study was accomplished in the United States without attending any of the great European conservatories.)
Barber engages in a little self-plagiarism in this work, for he elaborates and orchestrates themes from his Elegy for Flute and Piano, which was written in 1959. But even so, there is no question that he shaped this work around his own style, and the incredible technical ability possessed by the pianist John Browning. In fact, one of the reasons this work is seldom performed live, is because of its extreme difficulty.
The performance of the Barber Concerto was conducted by Maestro Travis Jürgens with his wife, Kristen Jürgens, performing on the piano. Ms. Jürgens was the winner of the 2012 Lamont Solo Honors Competition. And it is a small wonder. She is an absolutely amazing pianist. According to the program notes, she has been a pianist since the age of four. She graduated with High Distinction from the world renowned Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, where she received her Bachelor of Music and Piano Performance. While there, she studied with Edward Auer and Luba-Edlina Dubinsky, of the distinguished Borodin Trio. She has also studied Philosophy of Music at St. Peter’s College, at Oxford University. She is now a graduate student studying with Alice Rybak for her master’s degree in Piano Performance.
I have written about Travis Jürgens in other articles, but to refresh your memory, I will quote from his website:
Travis Jürgens is currently the Music Director and Conductor of the Philharmonia of Greater Kansas City, and the Associate Conductor of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra and Opera Theatre in Denver. In 2011, Jürgens received 2nd place from The American Prize in Orchestral Conducting.
Jürgens has performed in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Musicians who have played under his baton have commented on his exceptional talent, dynamic musicianship, imagination, and strong leadership. He has conducted the Denver Philharmonic, Bohuslav Martinu Philhamonic, Illinois Valley Symphony, Rose City Chamber Orchestra, South Carolina Philharmonic, and musicians from the Orquestra de Cadaqués. He earned his Bachelor’s in Piano Performance with High Distinction from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and his Master’s in Orchestral Conducting from the University of Illinois. Additionally, he studied at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien and the Institut für Europäishe Studien in Vienna, Austria. He also made his Viennese debut as guest conductor of the IES Vienna Chamber Orchestra.
This was a truly remarkable performance of the Barber Concerto. It was remarkable because both the conductor and the pianist are already outstanding artists. It was also remarkable, because they are husband and wife, and it is a very moving experience to see them perform together, especially when they are of such even musicianship. The Barber Concerto, for both orchestra and piano, is one of the most difficult. I have never performed this concerto, but I have performed two Prokofiev concertos, and I honestly believe that the Barber exceeds the Prokofiev in difficulty. From the outset Ms. Jürgens demonstrated a great deal of forcefulness. By that, I mean that she sat down at the piano and truly took charge with her astonishing finger work that was always very clear and very articulate. One of the aspects of this Concerto is difficult rhythms with demanding accents throughout the entire work, her accents were perfect and even in the most difficult rhythmic spots, her tone was scintillating, yet rich. And, of course, Maestro Jürgens conducting was above reproach. I must also say that the orchestra seemed to be enjoying this partnership between conductor- pianist-husband-wife, because it is been some time since I have seen the Lamont Symphony (they always work very hard) work so hard at making music and responding to what the conductor demands. There are so many words that typify this performance: exciting, passionate throughout, lyrical, and beautiful. And every note could be heard. It was also a pleasure to watch Ms. Jürgens play, because there were no extraneous theatrical movements. She simply sat at the piano and got to work. In truth, I would challenge anyone to make theatrical movements while playing this piece, because I simply don’t think they would have the time.
I truly enjoyed the second movement, because it gives the pianist and the orchestra a chance to blossom in the incredible lyrical sections that must sound so expansive. I assure you that Kristen Jürgens performed it just that way. I could not help but think of the words that I believe come from Omar Khayyám: “Ephemeral light, ephemeral life!” The two Jürgens made such incredible music – both seemed very comfortable in their roles, and very assured.
The last movement, which is so full of rhythmic difficulties, demonstrated the thorough knowledge and understanding that both of these musicians possess. In a piece like this it is not enough to simply memorize: it must be conceived in the mind in order to bring it to life. Both of these musicians have that ability. They are outstanding: Kristen Jürgens has amazing technique and amazing ability to concentrate with ease. Their ability to communicate with each other as they performed was so incredibly personal, and full of knowledge as to what the other was going to do. It truly became a musical conversation between piano and orchestra, for all the questions were answered and all statements were in agreement. It was an electrifying performance because both are such superior musicians. They are of graduate student age, but in this instance, age has nothing to do with ability. These two are excellent musicians, and one wonders where their artistic ability will take them.
Following the Barber Concerto, Maestro Lawrence Golan conducted the Mahler Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major. This is an absolutely enormous piece of music that, like the Barber, is extremely difficult. This symphony is known to all regular concert audiences, so I will not go into great detail about its history. In the performance of this piece, Lawrence Golan easily demonstrated what a partnership there was between him and the Lamont Symphony Orchestra, which obviously admires and respects him. I mention that because it is so necessary for orchestra members to have some sense of symbiosis with their conductor, and it is most noticeable when that does not exist.
The pastorale opening of the first movement with all the bird calls and distant fanfares was absolutely beautiful as it develops into a standard sonata form. There were moments in this first movement that seemed absolutely mysterious, and I am not sure at all that I have heard the Lamont Symphony change their mood, which they created with such depth, so easily and quickly. That, again, is a demonstration of Golan’s ability to motivate the students. The second movement was lusty and full of vigor with a slower trio section which was incredibly lyrical and graceful. It was a pleasure to sit and listen for a while without taking any notes on the performance. I was once again struck by the fact that this was a student orchestra performing a Mahler symphony. If any of you readers are orchestra members or professional musicians, you will understand what I mean. Performing a Mahler symphony is not at all like playing an early Mozart or an early Haydn symphony. While those works are gems that will live forever, the Mahler is fraught with rhythmic difficulties, changes of tempo, and harmonies which can be difficult because they require excellent tune and attention to sound. It is hard work to play the notes, and to make those notes beautiful.
I have written about this Symphony before, and every time I hear it, I become divided in my thoughts about the third movement. Mahler uses the French folk song, Frère Jacques, in a minor key, slows the tempo, and changes it to a funeral march. Its motivation was a woodcut depicting animals carrying a hunter to his grave. Its tone is one of deadly seriousness, and yet its irony almost overcomes that seriousness. I have often wondered if Mahler wasn’t inserting his own brand of humor in this very serious symphony, but I have been assured by Mahler-ites that he never laughed much during his entire life, and this certainly was not the spot. Nonetheless, the orchestra performed it beautifully, with great solemnity, and yet with a certain lightness that did not bog things down.
The last movement had some fine lyricism which belied the difficulties of the work. The brass section in the performance of this symphony was outstanding, and considering the difficulties of this work, and considering that these are students still in the learning process, this was a remarkable performance.
The Lamont Symphony Orchestra members are very fortunate to have Maestro Lawrence Golan show them Mahler and lead them through the learning process of such a difficult work so that they perform it truly well. As they received their well-deserved applause, one could observe how tired some of the orchestra members looked, and yet, sense the pleasure they felt in their performance. I am sure that made it very satisfying for the audience as well.
Some of you readers may consider that this review is overly complementary. I assure you that it is not. Every superlative was well deserved. Every performance has spots where the performers wish they could have done better. But the ultimate goal was most certainly achieved: they made music worth listening to.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: BWV 1052, Gustav Mahler, Hsing-ay Hsu, J. S. Bach, Michael Butterman, Symphony Nr. 1
There was a sold-out house Saturday evening, September 17, at Mackey Auditorium on the CU campus in Boulder. The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra performed two very important pieces from music literature: the first, was the keyboard Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052, by Johann Sebastian Bach, and the second was Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major, which has been called the “Titan.” Both the Bach and the Mahler received well-deserved standing ovations, and the performance of both works has to be classified as some of the Boulder Phil’s best.
The soloist for the Bach concerto was Hsing-ay Hsu who is on the faculty at CU in Boulder. In case any of you readers are not aware of who she is, please make a sincere attempt to hear her performances because she is absolutely amazing, not only for her technique, but for her impeccable musicianship. To really be a good pianist, one must have sound technique of course, but to really excel, one has to be a musician first. Believe me, Hsing-ay Hsu is a truly fine musician.
I will quote from her bio statement: “Since making her stage debut at age four, Chinese pianist Hsing-ay Hsu (Sing-I Shoo) has performed at such notable venues as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and abroad in China, Japan, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and France. Upon reaching the age of eligibility in her freshman year at Juilliard, Hsu captured the 1996 William Kapell International Piano Competition Second Prize. She is also winner of the prestigious Juilliard William Petschek Recital Award in 2000, a 2003 McCrane Foundation Artist Grant, a 1999-2001 Paul & Daisy Sows Graduate Fellowship, and a 1997 Gilmore Young Artist Award.
“She has served as visiting piano faculty at Ohio University and University of Colorado, given residencies at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and Xiamen University, and regularly teaches masterclasses. Ms. Hsu is currently the Artistic Administrator of the Pendulum New Music Series at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she resides with her husband, composer Daniel Kellogg.”
Bach constantly borrowed from himself, as well as revising previous works for new instruments, when he composed. Many scholars are now convinced that this particular keyboard concerto is a revised work that was originally for violin which has since been lost. This concerto was written for a harpsichord with two manuals, but nonetheless when it is performed today, it is almost imperative that it be performed on a piano rather than the harpsichord. If it is done on harpsichord then the hall has to be quite small and the ensemble has to be quite small as well, for the harpsichord can be a very difficult instrument to hear. Ferruccio Busoni, a student of Franz Liszt’s, arranged this concerto for a larger ensemble and a modern solo instrument. Purists should not be alarmed at this as it has certainly increased the popularity of this work and increased its chances of being performed. In addition, Busoni was a very fine musician himself.
I was pleasantly surprised at the very outset of this performance, because the tempo that was taken by Maestro Butterman, and without question asked for by Ms. Hsu, was a little faster than I am accustomed to hearing, but it is a tempo that I have longed to hear. It was spirited, it was quick, and it had the kind of rhythmic drive – or pulse, if you will – that is so necessary when one performs Bach. That drive is often missing from other performers and orchestras. There was so much joy given by both the soloist and the orchestra that one simply had to smile while listening. The first movement was amazingly articulate, and each phrase was perfectly executed and shaped. The first movement also contains some very difficult fingerwork, but every single note could be heard. Her pedaling was absolutely flawless. It is also a wonderful thing to see and hear the confidence with which Hsing-ay Hsu performs. There were no extraneous and unnecessary motions; she simply gets down to the business of concentrating and presenting the audience a wonderful and accurate picture of the composer.
It was also very clear that Maestro Butterman and Ms. Hsu had a great deal of confidence in each other. There was some eye to eye contact, but in some ways, surprisingly little. They both knew what each other wanted and they did it with great ease. I must say that it has been a long time since I have heard the second movement of this concerto done so mysteriously and with so much darkness of tone. It really was quite a surprise. It sounded as if Bach was suddenly recalling some great tragedy. Mind you, it was still superb Bach, but the first movement was so full of joy, that the “musical description” of the second movement was quite a surprise.
The third movement returned the listener to the jovial character of the first movement. I know that it is a terrible cliché to say that this movement “dazzled with its sparkling quality,” but that’s exactly the way it was. I also point out that the third movement is just as difficult as the first. All of the non-musicians in the audience must surely be aware that because every single note can be heard, and because the soloist is not visibly working hard or “shaken,” does not mean that the piece is easy. It simply means that Hsing-ay Hsu is an exceptional pianist and musician.
This was a delightful performance, and the audience called Ms. Hsu back at least three times, as I recall, for an encore. Unfortunately, no encore was played, which only makes me yearn for her next performance.
An intermission separated the Bach with the only other work on the night’s program: the Mahler First Symphony. This symphony gets its name, “Titan,” because it was originally conceived as a tone poem loosely based on a novel of the same name by Jean Paul. Jean Paul’s novel describes a youth who is full of artistic desire, but whom the world has no use for. He finds no outlet for his artistic ability, and, because he has such difficulty adapting, his only way out is to commit suicide. Much has been made of Mahler’s preoccupation with death, and I will not go into it here. It is certain that Mahler had to have been one of the most troubled composers in all of music history, save, perhaps, for Tchaikovsky.
The first two movements, as the program notes explained, express the joys of youth, while the last two movements examine death. This morbid outlook is typical of Mahler, but to my way of thinking it is sometimes overstated in the same way that so many doctoral dissertations were written about Schoenberg’s and Webern’s 12 tone compositions. In the 1950s and early 1960s, as far as these two composers were concerned, there was analysis, and analysis, and analysis. Scientificism was rampant. Concerning Mahler: as he grew older, I do think that his preoccupation with the morbid grew stronger, but it is sometimes overdone.
The first movement of this “Titan” Symphony is really a pastorale setting, and exhibits bird calls and distant fanfares. The main theme comes from the song “I Went Out This Morning Through the Fields.” The second movement is a rather rousing Austrian Ländler, which is a dance in ¾ meter, usually with a dotted rhythm on the third beat. Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, and Mahler used it often. Now for the unusual feature of this Symphony: the third movement is a funeral march which is based on a woodcut by Jacques Callot. The woodcut depicts a procession of forest animals carrying the body of a hunter to his final resting place. This movement is in three sections, wherein the center trio section is almost similar to some kind of rowdy dancehall music. The opening and closing sections are the French folk tune, “Frère Jacques” played in a minor key. This is so full of irony, that it has often struck me – at the risk of annoying all Mahler lovers – as humorous. As far as I know, there is no evidence that Mahler was concerned with humor at this point in this symphony. In fact, his whole life often seems to be devoid of humor. But to me, this movement, because of its irony, is humorous. Every time I hear it performed live, I watch the audience very carefully, and everyone is sitting staring straight at the orchestra, uttering no sound whatsoever, and with a very serious look on their faces. It is if they are all thinking, “Listen to this. This cannot be funny because it is Mahler, and everyone knows Mahler is always serious, and may not have smiled his entire life.” The last movement of this symphony begins without a break, and really, the only word that describes this last movement is triumphant.
The Boulder Philharmonic, with Maestro Butterman leading the way, was absolutely sensational in the performance of this work. The outstanding sections in the performance of this symphony, to my way of thinking, were the cellos and the violas. There was also some wonderful playing from the clarinet and the oboe. Before the performance, Mr. Butterman explained that this symphony has a reputation of being one of the two best “first” symphonies ever written, the other one being Symphony Nr.1 by Brahms. I am in complete agreement. The fact that I think the third movement is full of ironic humor certainly does not detract from the genius this symphony exhibits. It is also very clear that Maestro Butterman understands how this Mahler Symphony should be performed. The tempos were perfect, and the entire orchestra performed with enthusiasm and sincerity under his direction.
In spite of this symphony’s emotional turbulence, and even taking into account the artistry that it displays, it is still a good “first” work to initiate those who are unfamiliar with Mahler. I hope that the Boulder Phil will perform another Mahler symphony soon. And I think that says a great deal about the performance ability of this orchestra. They are excellent.