Playing Mahler: Embracing Relevance and Truth

Mvt. 4. "Adagietto", p. 1 (211 of 321)
Mahler, Gustav, 1860-1911. Symphonies, no. 5, C♯ minor . Symphony no. 5 in C♯ minor : autograph manuscript, 1903 Oct. 

As part of my studies as an Abreu Fellow at the New England Conservatory, I have had the opportunity to attend many exciting performances by numerous orchestras in a variety of settings.  As a musician and student of the arts, I believe there is no greater classroom than the concert hall. As an artist's space and catalyst for realizing aesthetic purpose, it is also a place of freedom--a place for sharing the joy one derives from the experience of playing music.

In crafting a meaningful performance, music must be understood, perfected; and embraced as part of a larger cross-cultural and musical narrative tier. In this manner, a work's sense of identity changes and evolves; shedding contemporary perspectives and new meaning. As Gustav Mahler explains, "it should be one's sole endeavor to see everything afresh and create it anew." When we adopt this premise, we can feel music as a living entity; flexible and malleable to the conscience of our times.

As musicians begin to solve the technical demands of a particular score, they also invest in a process embodying the finer nuances behind the humanity of the music that they play. In engaging with music at a more personal level, a score truly becomes alive. It is no longer thought of as a succession of notes on a written page, but rather turned into an open dialogue among performers and audience; between art and interpretation; and through purpose and relevance. In this manner, music becomes re-imagined for the present.

A few weeks ago, I attended Alan Gilbert’s rehearsals with the New York Philharmonic. In a series of closed sessions at Avery Fisher Hall, the orchestra worked through an extensive repertoire that included Brahms’ Third Symphony, Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp, and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. It was a great privilege to hear the orchestra in this setting, a rare and very exciting opportunity indeed.

The orchestra’s commitment to the highest standards of music-making is truly inspiring. During the rehearsals, Mr. Gilbert was quick to point out the shapes of phrases and ethos of the works with meaningful gestures and imaginative zeal. In playing Brahms, a chamber-music-like approach served best to achieve a transparency of sound. In Mozart, the orchestra focused their attention to articulation and to resolving cadences with utmost care.

When it came to playing Mahler, the orchestra’s sound grew taller and stronger, their sense of ownership and connection to the music was palpable. A sensation of ethereal darkness permeated the entire opening movement, the second movement portrayed a meaning of urgency; the Adagietto described a longing for hope, the final movement, focused on declaring victory.
Over the years, the New York Philharmonic has gotten to know Mahler very well. In playing the composer’s works, the orchestra is expanding on the evolution of a performance tradition and legacy. Gustav Mahler was once the principal conductor of their orchestra. Leonard Bernstein was instrumental in bringing the composer’s work to the forefront of the classical symphonic canon. Of course, there is something to be said for these historical relationships and to the notion of relevance in the orchestra's music-making.

In music, finding relevance and purpose is equally important as realizing the technical demands of the score itself. The process by which artists connect to music can prove to be a complex labyrinth of decision making. These relationships are clearer to navigate when one can trace the evolution of interpretation to its origins. 

In being connected, even if just symbolically, to a lineage of tradition, the orchestra finds deeper connections to the composer, and therefore, audiences come to experience music-making that happens (from the orchestra’s standpoint) as a result of an evolution of interpretative possibilities rather than technical facility. As Howard Gardner, the cognitive psychologist and educator would attest, that in realizing authenticity, “we can never assume that we have arrived at the ultimate destination.” There is tremendous freedom in this proposition, and the New York Philharmonic thrives in this regard.

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