Friday, July 22, 2011

The Two Sides of Mahler

I'll admit. It's not easy to get my husband to consent to an interview—on any subject—let alone the topic of Mahler, especially for my blog. But since he served as concertmaster for the Seventeenth Annual Northwest Mahler Festival, under the baton of eighteen-year-old Principal Conductor, Alexander Prior (who, by the way, is a marvel as both conductor and composer), I have Mahler on the brain. Besides, this year marks the centennial of the composer's death.

So, without his actual consent I took notes on the sly and kept a sheet of paper between the pages of  Norman Lebrecht's most recent book, "Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World."

Alas! An unauthorized interview with violinist Ilkka Talvi on Gustav Mahler.

The Two Sides of the Critic

I've heard you occasionally compare composers with cuisine. If Beethoven is pasta, as you claim, with long spaghetti-like phrases that sometimes curl, twist and stretch, and Brahms is hearty as a steak or a solid piece of meat, what is Mahler?
Mahler reminds me of Chinese Dim Sum, a meal that lasts for a couple of hours, in which you can't be quite sure what, exactly, you're eating. But that doesn't mean it's not tasty. It's just too much of everything; you might end up with, say, twenty-five different dishes, or a mishmash.

I sense a slight, I wouldn't call it hostility, but an irritation with the excessive performance instructions mandated in the score by Mahler. Explain.
Either Mahler thought the musicians were complete idiots or he felt an intense need to micro-manage every player. For example, there's a long instructive sentence asking to play with utmost force so string vibrates wildly, rubbing against the fingerboard.
For one thing, this result can only be achieved with pure gut strings and a low bridge. How many players today use sheep gut strings? Mahler also specifies "vibrando". You know why?
Is this a quiz?
Orchestras of Mahler's day didn't use vibrato. It was an occasional stylistic device, like an embellishment. That's most likely why the concertmaster of Vienna Hofoper Arnold Rosé, who just happened to be Mahler's brother-in-law, turned down Fritz Kreisler's audition. Kreisler was the first to use constant vibrato in his playing, and the technique was unheard of in those days. As a result, he couldn't get a position in the Hofoper. But today you have orchestras performing Mahler and vibrating like crazy without regard for authenticity.

Your somewhat controversial theory regarding Leonard Bernstein and his promotion of Mahler's music as a means to spur Jewish philanthropic support fascinates me. 
The Bernstein/Mahler combination with the New York Philharmonic was a fail proof recipe for philanthropic success. Bernstein was able to prosyletize Mahler, the Jew, by emphasizing his use of Yiddish folk melodies and familiar Klezmer tunes. This music in combination with Bernstein's charisma, galvanized the support of the Jewish community. Jews from the Old Country needed a musical hero, and they got two for the price of one: Mahler and Bernstein. Suddenly Gustav Mahler had become 105% Jewish. Never mind that the composer had converted to Catholicism. Bernstein intuited that his followers yearned to experience something totally fresh and new with regard to repertoire, rather than being subjected to the same German compositions that reminded them of the past. Bernstein sensed this. The Jewish composer Schoenberg, with his twelve tone technique, would've been impossible to digest, but Mahler—

How did you come up with 105%?
Because with Mahler, the megalomaniac, everything is in excess. Orchestras are going broke; the sheer forces needed to perform his music are budget busters. Megaworks. Obviously they're becoming the property of community and youth orchestras in this country, as it's no longer affordable to produce a Mahler Symphony. Same with Wagner, who, by the way, in spite of his vituperative antisemitic statements about Jews in music, Mahler venerated. Conducting Wagner's music was Mahler's ticket to fame, like the Israeli conductor, Asher Fisch. It all started with Wagner's disdain for Felix Mendelssohn. All because Mendelssohn didn't give Wagner the time of day. Which leads to the paradox; Mahler and his adoration for Wagner.

You seem bothered.
You know what really gets under my skin?
The main thing that annoys me is that all these composers (Mendelssohn, Mahler, and even dear old Fritz Kreisler) were in a hurry to deny their cultural heritage and adopt Catholicism for self-advancement. Putting it simply, Mahler changed his religion in 1897 to get a better gig with the Vienna Court Opera.
You know, I have a vision of Hell.
Oh, what is it?
Richard Wagner is forced to conduct an all Mahler festival, with all ten symphonies, endlessly played by musicians of certain ethnic backgrounds. They have no common language, so the German terms are meaningless. And every single part in the score has been re-orchestrated by Mendelssohn!

What if Mahler were a conductor or music director of a professional American orchestra today; how do you imagine players would react?
They'd go on strike. First of all, Mahler would insist on featuring his symphonic works with endless rehearsals and impossible over-time. And, especially today, orchestra musicians would not tolerate his asinine, autocratic behavior. Most important, they'd expect him to show his directives with the stick, not overload them with verbal commands: "breathe here, slow down there, intermission here to wipe your arse."

Do you think that Mahler would have made a successful fund raiser?
Hell raiser—is more like it.

In a review of Norman Lebrecht's "Why Mahler" by Leon Botstein for the Wall Street Journal, Botstein makes the point that a "troubling aspect of Lebrecht's chronicle is the importance he gives to recordings. Although Lebrecht recommends hearing Mahler in live performance, one senses his passion for Mahler is linked to his experience of listening to the composer's music with headphones or in front of the loudspeakers." What are your thoughts about live versus recorded Mahler performances?
Recordings are an ideal way to listen to the works of both Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Being that they were conductors, and heard their works performed from the vantage point of the podium, they lacked the same aural experience as the concert-goer. For Strauss and Mahler it was up close and personal. When Strauss composes a solo marked "lowest notes sul G in piano" for the concertmaster and the brass is playing at the same time, Strauss's conception was for the violin solo close to his ear, rather than afar, as one can hear on a recording.

In  "Why Mahler?" Lebrecht features an exchange between your Finnish countryman, Jean Sibelius, and Gustav Mahler. They apparently met one time in Finland. Sibelius, who had completed his own Third Symphony extolled the virtues of structural severity. Mahler countered Sibelius with his belief that the symphony must be like the whole world, insisting that a symphony must embrace everything.
And see what happened? Mahler died at age fifty-one and Sibelius (who stopped composing around the same age) lived into his nineties.

Mahler suffered from terrible hemorrhoids.
Mahler was a hemorrhoid. He treated his musicians horribly.

You most recently performed Mahler's Third Symphony, and without going overboard, I'd say your solos were divine. In this symphony, Mahler sought to explain the universe, to find a reason for suffering and misery in this world. Some believe the answer to solving the Mahler riddle might be revealed in Schopenhauer's "The World as Will and Representation," as Schopenhauer's philosophy captivated the composer. For Bernstein, the Third Symphony was not just a pastoral symphony—an answer to Beethoven, but an ecological prophecy. In 1967, Bernstein claimed that it is 'only after we have experienced the smoking ovens of Auschwitz, the frantically bombed jungles of Vietnam, through Hungary, Suez, the Bay of Pigs, the refueling of the Nazi machine, the murder in Dallas, the arrogance of South Africa, the Hiss-Chambers travesty, the Trotskyite purges, Black Power, Red Guards, the Arab encirclement of Israel, the plague of MacCarthyism, the Tweedledum armaments race—only after this can we finally listen to Mahler's music and understand that it foretold all'.

So tell me. What was your favorite moment in the performance of the Third Symphony?
When it was over.