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Jessica Hung

Mahler 9.

March 3, 2009 at 8:03 AM

...is probably my favorite symphony. Bold words, perhaps, especially when you take into account the symphonic masterpieces of Beethoven and Brahms, but no composer plunges the listener (and the musicians) into extreme emotional depths quite like Mahler.  His music is irresistible for its incredible drama –something I vividly remember Benjamin Zander (who guest conducted the Akron Symphony just last season) emphasizing in the string tremolo that opens the Second Symphony.  And for its passion, which can be raw and exposed as in the last movement of the Ninth, or inward and intimate as in the Blumine section of the First Symphony (originally a separate slow movement in itself, but now at the center of the otherwise stormy/triumphant last movement—violinists on the audition circuit may recognize this excerpt by the less descriptive, “rehearsal 15 to 19”). And for its humanity—that it is universally affecting precisely because it was borne so deeply out of personal experience.

This past weekend on our Classical series, we gave the Dayton premiere of Mahler 9 under our Music Director, Neal Gittleman. I was fortunate to have played it before as a student at Northwestern, so I already harbored a strong bias towards it going in, but every performance is still unique and eye-opening. We had five rehearsals for this set—one more than usual—and the Mahler was the sole work on the program, putting the focus entirely on his last complete symphony.  Written in 1910, just a couple years before The Rite of Spring, its place in the twentieth century is obvious, with incredible stretches of tonality on every page.  Yet, to me, it is the fact that tonality is not only still intact but also vital (for example, the beautiful, serene D major in the first movement’s opening second violin theme and the third movement’s trumpet solo—which foreshadows the theme of the last movement Adagio, shifted to a heart-wrenching D-flat major) that gives tension and power to the bold and brilliant harmonic shifts throughout. In his Fifth Symphony, Mahler took Beethoven’s revolutionary C minor-to-major shift (echoed by Brahms in his First Symphony) and heightened the struggle by moving from C-sharp minor to D major.  It seems only fitting that, towards the end of his life, Mahler would choose to journey the same half-step, but in reverse—and yet transformed.
There is sometimes fierce debate about what exactly Mahler meant to convey at the end of the Ninth—it is about mortality, yes, but do we hear resignation, or acceptance?  I don’t presume to have a simple answer to that question, but I think Mahler’s choice of key is a clue. D-flat is a very rich, dense key, filled with lush colors, even to the ears of someone without perfect pitch (such as yours truly). And while I’m not really in the resignation camp, D-flat is not really a key of detachment, either. In fact, I would argue that much of the beauty of Mahler’s music comes from the very attached emotions of longing and suffering—and while his yearnings were constantly for something higher, something spiritual and sublime, this desire manifested through his music in an intensely earthly way, something that can be felt just as strongly in the mind, heart, and body as in the soul (think Urlicht). This spiritual/earthly duality serves as an umbrella for many other juxtapositions in his music, down to the tiniest detail, both technical (for example, the first movement violin solos marked pp, but hervortretend—prominent—or, my favorite, schmeichelnd—cajolingly) and artistic (a molto espressivo last movement violin solo over a bed of tutti violins playing ohne Empfindung—without feeling).
Though I described Mahler earlier as “universally affecting,” Mahler 9 is perhaps not for everyone. Complaints I’ve heard range from “neurotic” to “self-indulgent”—words that no doubt described not just his work but the man himself at times. But I like to think that it is these very human failings that draw our empathy.  Mahler’s expression is always personal, sometimes overbearing, but never without meaning or intent—even if its intent is sheer banality. That he went through life knowing great anguish and tragedy is apparent (many of his siblings died in childhood, one committed suicide, his daughter died at age four), but I am hard-pressed to find an emotion at the end of Mahler 9 stronger than the sweetest love and gratitude for life, and the beginnings of peace. The last melodic fragment in the first violins is a quote from Kindertotenlieder—sobering, perhaps, but the line is “Der Tag ist schoen auf jenen Hoeh’n!”
The day is beautiful on those heights.
~
As usual, I have rambled on abstractly without much reference to real-life events. However, our performances went very well on both nights. The orchestra put in a tremendous amount of hard work, as did Neal, and I was honored to have been part of the DPO’s Mahler 9 premiere. I thought we came a long way in our rehearsals over the span of a week, and things really solidified at the dress rehearsal on Thursday night. Although that always raises the question of whether you’ve peaked too soon, the concerts were a hit—we have an incredibly receptive and supportive audience in this community who stood and applauded heartily, not least when Neal held up the score in his hands. I invited a few friends who weren’t too familiar with classical music, warning them in advance that this concert was not for the faint of heart, and much to my relief they really enjoyed it. Friday night—the premiere premiere—was actually ideal for me in terms of how I felt personally. These were certainly the most exposed solos I’ve played in a major symphony here thus far, and I find the first movement ones the most difficult (not to mention the ones at the very end of the first movement are by far the most structurally important). I actually had time on a day off earlier in the week to drive up to Cleveland for a lesson with my old teacher Steve Rose, and I think the emphasis he places on character and relaxation really helps. Switching back and forth seamlessly between blending into the section and standing out in a solo is a mental task in and of itself (the third movement solo is hardest for this, occurring right in the middle of a phrase—as if someone suddenly yanks back a shower curtain for a few bars, then apologizes and pulls it back, and you’ve got to be nonchalantly scrubbing yourself clean the whole time), but the trick is to do so while staying fully immersed in character and without receding into that uncomfortable mental zone of self-consciousness, self-talk—self-anything, really. When communication and expression of the music is the highest priority, fear has no room to even enter the picture.
Although Friday was an ideal balance of excitement for opening night and comfort, familiarity, and trust in the music and my wonderful colleagues, Saturday somewhat surprisingly turned out to be no less engaging—it’s simply not a piece you can sit back in. The parts I remember most are the last movement, both divine and decadent (sometimes simultaneously). And perhaps because I am young, I have to admit that it is not the end of the movement so much that speaks to me yet (though that may change each time I play the piece), but the richness of the opening and the middle: so full of blood and warmth, so thoroughly alive.

~

Two last notes:

While I take my job seriously, I did not drive all the way to Cleveland just for a lesson on Mahler 9 solos.  It was also on repertoire for my upcoming recital.  Please come if you're in the area--it's FREE, and there will be a reception afterwards.  Free music, AND free food!  It's on Sunday, March 15th at 4:30 pm, at the Seventh Day Adventist Church (3939 Stonebridge Road, Kettering, OH, 45419).  DPO Principal Keyboard Josh Nemith and I will be performing an eclectic program of Handel, Beach, Prokofiev, Debussy, and Beethoven.

Finally, Neal informed us after our performances this weekend that his inspiration for the opening of the third movement is Kramer barging into Jerry's apartment.  No doubt this will color my interpretation of Mahler 9 for years to come.


From Michael Chang
Posted on March 4, 2009 at 1:51 AM

Jessica! I really loved your Brahms on YouTube! Good luck with the recital :]


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 5, 2009 at 11:30 PM

Greetings,

you might be intereste din this reference to Mahler 9

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/tomserviceblog/2009/mar/02/classical-music-great-orchestral-debate

Cheers,

buri

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