Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mahler Wins Teen Night at ASO

Whose idea was it to fill Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center with teens on a night that featured just one 90-minute long work without words, without pop tunes, without even a slide show?  Genius!

From row "C," close enough to see a violist's socks slide inches below his pants' cuff, I appreciated how Mahler tamed a restless crowd in a bad situation.  Conductor Donald Runnicles waited until the coughing died down to begin Mahler's 9th, so quiet at the start that I had to lean in to hear.   Then from the percussion corner of the orchestra arose an assertive melodic motif, played by a cross between a honky-tonk piano and a zither -- a cimbalon, maybe? -- immediately answered by low strings on the opposite side of the stage.  I might forget the tune among so much of the music that followed, but that wide-spaced dialogue of sounds, though a little different each time, held the first movement together through wide swings of mood.

In the pause before the second movement, we heard the traditional coughing, more than usual.  That begat more coughing, and giggles from the teen gallery down to the stage, where players looked up at the house and smiled and exchanged wise-cracks with the conductor.  Then Mahler threw us dance music, fast and light, interrupted by a rougher dance tune played with percussive force by violists, interrupted again by a ruder, faster dance.  This pile-up was funny and a little delirious.

I should mention that Mahler gave us a spectacle, rows of musicians bowing furiously, furrowing brows in concentration, then sitting still while a single instrument played a melody.

Again, at the end of the second movement, there were coughs; then came a louder, faster, more chaotic third movement, called "sardonic" in the program.  That shut us up:  Not a sound at its end.

The fourth movement seems to end several times, but melody arises yet again, like a sigh, from different areas of the orchestra -- the first cello's melody was especially pleasing -- until we perceive that just about every one of the hundred-plus musicians may get a solo turn. But the audience was patient:  I stayed awake, and didn't need to resort to the cough drops in my pocket.

The very quiet music faded to nothing.  Conductor Donald Runnicles held his hands up in long silence. When he dropped them, the crowd erupted in applause.

The program tells us that Mahler was haunted by death, especially in this ninth.  No argument; but "death" was not what I heard.  Having the symphony wash over us was like watching a movie, though it required more concentration.  I didn't know the story, or the characters, but I felt as though I was going to different places, experiencing extremes of emotion and drama, and, in the end, it was all beautiful.

I'm naturally reminded of another crowd pleaser, Prince.  This week of his unexpected death, many commentators referenced his SuperBowl performance in 2005 for his ability to generate excitement.  Garrison Keillor, in his tribute, told us that the producers called Prince ahead of the game to warn him, "It's raining."  Prince replied, "Can you make it rain harder?"  Yet this guy stayed largely private his whole career, while cultivating a mystique wrapped in androgyny, eroticism, religion, mixed race parentage.

Mahler's fascination with songs of death is his mystique; he knows how to tease the audience, how to build variety and contrast into his vast symphonies; and he doesn't settle for rain - he makes it rain harder.

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