My jaw dropped to the floor. It wasn't because of my friend's thoughtfulness and generosity, though that was considerable.
It was because I could not believe that all 10 of these epic symphonies -- hours of music that capture worlds within them, a life's output from a genius composer, performances involving up to 1,000 musicians -- could be reduced to a five-inch cube that fit in my hand. Not only did it seem impossible, it even seemed wrong!
The Los Angeles Philharmonic's Mahler Project -- "nine symphonies, five weeks, two orchestras, one conductor" -- seems more appropriate in its scale. The one conductor is Gustavo Dudamel, who will celebrate his 31st birthday on Jan. 26th by conducting Mahler 5.
I've committed to attending the entire cycle over the next month, which takes place mostly at LA's Disney Hall, although for Mahler 8 ("Symphony of 1,000" which will feature both the LA Phil and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, as well as 16 choirs) the forces are so great that the concert will be held at the larger Shrine Auditorium.
On Friday I spoke to LA Phil Concertmaster Martin Chalifour about the joys and challenges of this formidable project.
It's not the first time the LA Phil has played Mahler with Dudamel, who is in his third year as Conductor and Music Director of the orchestra. Mahler 1 is one of the first pieces the LA Phil played with him.
"Actually, he's quite elegant with (Mahler)," Martin said of Dudamel. "He's very respectful of the score, and he doesn't try to make it sound like a 'Dudamel' piece. He studies things in great depth. He fools you because he has fun with it, but he knows every detail. And what's amazing, I have a feeling he's going to challenge himself and do several of them from memory, if not all of the whole cycle. So stay tuned!"
And there is plenty of detail -- and depth -- in the symphonies of Mahler.
"The basic feeling I come away with, after performing a Mahler symphony, is that you've gone through an entire life story, or an entire great book, and you are changed by that book, by that experience," Martin said Friday, before the first performance. "Each of those symphonies is like that, to a very different degree.... Basically, they are thought-altering experiences, each of these symphonies. You come away whistling a tune from a great Mozart or Schubert or Dvorak symphony, but that's not necessarily how you're going to feel after a Mahler symphony. You'll have fragments of music, but emotionally you'll feel different. The emotional impact it can have on people is so strong, that I would be afraid, almost, to go through the experience!" (He laughs.)
Good thing they're easing us into it.
"We're starting the cycle with Symphony No. 4, which is the lightest one, the most pastorale one," Martin said Friday. "That one seems a little bit different than the others. It's much more optimistic; it's sunnier, shorter."
The concertmaster plays a unique kind of solo in the second movement of the Fourth Symphony -- a rollicking tune written for "scordatura" violin, meaning that the tuning of the violin is altered.
"It's always intriguing when you have to tamper with how you tune the instrument," Martin said. "That's the first thing you ever learn on an instrument: how to tune it, or how to tell your parents to tune it!"
For Mahler 4, "the entire instrument needs to be tuned one whole-step above." So it's still in fifths, but instead of G-D-A-E, it's A-E-B-F#. It puts a lot of stress on the instrument.
"An E-string already usually feels like it can't take any more pressure, and you're tuning a whole-step above," Martin said. "It gives a different color to most instruments: it's a little more nasal, acerbic -- almost a sarcastic color.
"Initially, it's an extra logistic problem for people who have perfect pitch, like me," Martin said. "The first time you do it, it's very disorienting because you put your fingers down and definitely the wrong notes come out. A lot of people have to first learn the piece by ear and by geometry: is it second-finger high or low, when I start the passage? It's written the physical note that you play, so the real note does not appear on paper. So the real note -- it just sounds differently."
During the second movement, the concertmaster plays both a normally-tuned violin and the scordatura violin, sometimes with only a few seconds to switch. The solution is to use two violins, but it does pose some logistical challenges.
"For the last two times we've played this piece, I've used a simple hook that goes just under the music stand, on the stem of the music stand. It hangs freely, but it doesn't bang against the stand because of the shoulder pad. It works very well to protect it. The conductor, even if he tried, could not really brush his legs against this," Martin said. "So for the brief time that the Stradivarius is on the hook, we're playing and nobody comes near it anyway. It is definitely solid-as-can-be, protected. (By the way, if you're curious about the hook, "It comes from Shar!")
Speaking of that Stradivarius... Martin currently plays the ex-Earl of Plymouth, ex-Kreisler Stradivarius from 1711, owned since 1965 by the LA Phil.
"This is the Strad that is the most prized possession of the Philharmonic," Martin said. "It's one of three Strad violins here, the one that is in perfect condition, from the Golden Period. It just turned 300, and it belonged to Fritz Kreisler, who fell in love with it and bought it immediately, when he saw how pristine it was.
He's been playing the instrument for only about a year and a half.
"I played on it my very first season, 17 years ago. To me, initially, it felt too much like a Vuillaume: very strong, but more difficult color changes to achieve." Martin said. "My approach to the instrument has changed enough since then that I wanted to try the Strad again, when it became available when someone retired. I changed my views on it and changed my way of playing with it. It's a very different, more robust instrument than the other one, than the smaller-sized one."
Playing the same instrument that Kreisler played, "it's incredible," Martin said. "It's an incredible privilege, and it makes you feel humble every day."
On Saturday I attended the first concert in the cycle, which featured Mahler 4. My son Brian, 11, will be among those singing in Mahler 8 and in Mahler 3, as part of the LA Children's Chorus. After so many rehearsals, his curiosity was up, so he attended Mahler 4 with me as well.
For me, Mahler 4 is an old friend: it's the first Mahler symphony I played (in college) and I have a particular recording I enjoy, with Kathleen Battle.
On Saturday, the program began with Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer," a four-song cycle with orchestra which predates all the symphonies but contains plenty of melodic material that Mahler uses later, particularly in the Symphony No. 1 (which is next in the Mahler Project, on Friday).
Baritone Thomas Hampson captured the frequent mood swings in these songs, for which Mahler wrote both music and text while in his 20s, lovesick over the soprano Johanna Richter. The basic gist: How can the birds sing, when what I love can never bloom for me? A translation of the German words was projected on a small screen overhead. These songs have quite a musical range, and Hampson drew a broad range of colors from his easy baritone voice: from a gorgeous low and slow pianissimo to the ringy-dingy second song that requires a high register, and more. If you like Mahler 1 you should become familiar with this song cycle as its genesis.
And then... the familiar sleighbells that begin the Fourth Symphony. In the first movement, I noticed, as never before, all the intricate lines the cellos had -- Dudamel seemed to make a space for that to happen. Overall, the lower strings rocked.
As predicted by Martin, Dudamel conducted with no score, and every subtlety of rhythm was crystal clear. The first movement ended with a wonderful, mad acceleration, from a dead stop to a complete frenzy -- so fast!
Martin played that scordatura violin solo with great energy. The movement feels like a ride on a lopsided vehicle, maybe something created by Dr. Seuss, with three wheels that are all different sizes, then in a big glissando it melts into a sultry summer afternoon, one of those long, yawning days of summer sunshine.
The third movement begins with stillness and suspension, and the way this orchestra played it, a bit icy at first and then warming. A beautiful oboe solo. There are several climaxes, gorgeously in-tune trumpets sounded the first one, with great clarity. The end of this movement is so dramatic, it's almost funny. Everything seems to lull into a sunset, a musical picture of serenity, when out of nowhere comes a crazy loud octave, with drums and brass and the kitchen sink. My 11-year-old companion actually turned to me, raised an eyebrow and made one of those "What the?" faces when this happened. It calms down and is then followed by such a weird modulation at the end, like lemon juice suddenly spurting out of the very mild candy you've been chewing.
Soprano Miah Persson stepped forward for the last movement, in which she sings a song that describes a child's view of what heaven must be -- it's one of my favorite pieces of music, and she sang it beautifully. The LA Phil took this at a fairly brisk tempo, and I enjoyed being able to read the subtitles.
I realized that here, I had my own child next to me. As Persson sang, my young companion yanked my sleeve to observe that the children's chorus in Mahler 3 has a lot of the same note patterns. Okay, but you can't start singing!
As we drove home, Brian said that he'd been a little concerned that the whole song was going to be about the food in heaven, as it did go on and on about the bread, asparagus, green beans, apples, pears, grapes...
"And you know," he said, with a grin and some sacrilegious pleasure, "the McDonald's burgers, the Del Taco, Doritos..."
"...the Twinkies, Milk Duds, microwave popcorn," I said, laughing. "But you heard the end of the song, that's my favorite part. The best part of heaven..."
"Is the music!"
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