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RPO performs ‘Mahler 7’

Date: March 1, 2019
David Raymond, CITY Newspaper. Click here for the original article.

When the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra first performed Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in 1953 under the direction of Erich Leinsdorf, Mahler was rarely programmed. By 1982, when David Zinman led the RPO in performing Symphony No. 7, Mahler was much more frequently performed, but the piece was not. RPO Music Director Ward Stare is bringing Mahler’s Seventh Symphony back this week. And while I can’t vouch for the Leinsdorf and Zinman performances, Stare and the orchestra are doing a bang-up job with this huge, difficult work.

I admit: I am a late convert to this symphony. It’s an essential piece of the Mahlerian puzzle, but it’s also quite a puzzle in itself. It struck me as a mad, musical tea party instead of a respectable symphony – long and episodic, full of starts and stops, inscrutable emotions, and odd sounds.

But like many other “difficult” works, you just have to dig in and listen to it. Repeated listening reveals more of the clarity of its structure, the relationships between the themes, and the place of each musical detail. Symphony No. 7 is a masterpiece, but an idiosyncratic one.

The orchestration of this work is worth a review in itself. Not only does Mahler provide massive sound, he divides and subdivides the sections of an orchestra like a musical cyclotron. And I’m just referring to the conventional winds, brass, and strings. Mahler begins the work with an arresting solo for the alto horn and ends it with clanging chimes and cowbells, throwing in a guitar and mandolin along the way.

The RPO tackled all this with terrific results. The strings, in full or subdivided, were rich-sounding and beautifully detailed. Their periodic use of portamento – a sliding effect that Mahler sometimes employs when the music needs a touch of schmaltz – was convincing. Unusually, the viola section is given several chances to shine in this work, and it did, led by principal Melissa Matson.

The augmented wind section not only played its lyrical moments beautifully, but dug into every one of the bizarre cheeps and blats Mahler worked into his orchestration – with frequently amusing results. This work is famous for its demands on the brass section; the playing overall was brilliant and penetrating, and principal trumpet Douglas Prosser hit some spectacular high notes. My only reservation – and I never thought I’d be saying this in an RPO review – is that the finale really does need a little more cowbell.

Like God, Mahler is in the details and in the big picture, and Ward Stare proved to be a highly intelligent guide to the Seventh Symphony’s sprawling, five-moment structure. His tempos, overall, were well-judged, and the whole thing had a satisfying sense of balance. The first and last movements, which can seem endless, were clearly and cogently laid out, and the musicians never wallowed in the music’s sentimental moments.

The overarching interpretation may have been just a bit cautious for such a wild symphony, but this is after all a new piece for orchestra and conductor, so a bit of caution was understandable.

To be sure, the musicians approached the music with plenty of character. The central scherzo, which Mahler marked “Schattenhaft” – “spectral” or “shadowy” – had just the right note of creepiness. A critic once described this music as “a child’s fear of the dark,” and the performance conveyed Mahler’s bumps in the night most effectively.

The fourth movement, a serenade complete with swooning solo violin and mandolin, was a delectable combination of sentimentality and irony. That’s not exactly easy to pull off, but the orchestra’s elegant performance had the audience hanging on every note. The finale is marvelously noisy and unbuttoned music – twenty minutes of it. Stare organized it compellingly, and the RPO delivered it triumphantly.

In describing the Seventh Symphony, Mahler biographer Michael Kennedy, trots out the adjectives “complex, extravagant, highly sophisticated, mercurial, optimistic, amorous, and at the end, jovial.”

In other words, there is a lot here for a conductor, an orchestra, and a listener to unpack. The RPO is offering you one more chance to get to know Mahler’s Seventh this weekend, and I think you’d be foolish not to take advantage of it.