Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mahler 1

The Pittsburgh Symphony finally made it out to New York with Manfred Honeck this week, so I took the Metro North down after work yesterday to catch them at Carnegie Hall. Stu, who works Tuesdays in the city, stuck around for it too, so we had another chance to enjoy our western Pennsylvanian pride together. Usually that's involved Steelers games on TV or the occasional baseball game. The symphony more than holds its own with the sports franchises, of course, most pointedly in being able to play something for sixty minutes without completely unraveling near the end. I considered bringing the Terrible Towel anyway but figured it probably wouldn't be the right context.

Honeck brought them out with Mahler's First Symphony, plus the Brahms Violin Concerto with Anne-Sophie Mutter. The week's snowstorm didn't land in the city till several hours later, and Carnegie was a well-filled, appreciative hall. As Andrew Druckenbrod noted in the Post-Gazette, Honeck and the orchestra have logged a bunch of hours on Mahler 1 already (and they've recorded it, too), so the concert definitely had the air of a statement being made.

And the statement was a fantastic one, I'm happy to report. First of all, the orchestra sounded great, particularly the winds and brass, who all brought a fully stocked toolkit of tone colors and textures. (The brass can still let it rip, too, of course.) Honeck worked on his details down to a very fine level, and the instrumental layers were marvelously transparent.

But Honeck! Man, he has some powerfully interesting ideas and obviously the chops to bring them off. He didn't so much interpret the symphony as create a complete personality for it. Honeck got his fingers into everything, constantly shaping tempos and phrasing and dynamics. Dramatic gestures had an exaggerated elasticity, and dynamic contrasts were fearlessly played up. Mahler 1 is a huge smorgasbord of musical types, and Honeck heightened the character of everything. The mysterious quiet at the symphony's opening was otherworldly and almost totally static. The nature music had a little extra jaunty, naive skip in its step, while sentimental lines in the strings were lent a perfect ironic gooeyness. Mahler's folk-dance caricatures came across just so, as caricatures, with wry subtlety. And when the time came in the fourth movement for the earnest sturm und drang, and later the crowning affirmation of the conclusion (was this the last time Mahler went in for that, or what?) up opened the skies for the orchestra to play like a force of nature. It's a big, odd, world-embracing symphony, and it got a big, odd, world-embracing performance.

For all his elastic teasing and tugging of melodies, Honeck keeps a good sense of what's authentic to the piece. This is a reading where you're almost always aware of the conductor's decision making -- and Honeck, with his spirited conducting gestures, embodies those decisions visually, too -- and yet it strengthens the identity of the composition. And more to the point, he picks good tempos. When the music is supposed to dance, it dances, and when you're supposed to feel a rush, you feel a rush. The audience clearly dug it, keeping more attentive than usual and thundering out with applause right after.

So now I'm keen to hear him conduct more Mahler, and more of everything else. The PSO has their calendar out for next year, and it's the 5th and 10th that come next, Mahler-wise, neither of which would probably drag me off the coast. But the Brahms Fourth Symphony plus Emmanuel Ax playing Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, in June 2011, might be a destination concert. The PSO extended Honeck's contract through 2016 a few months ago, which sounds like a fine decision to me.

Oh, speaking of Brahms, yes, the Brahms Violin Concerto. It was best in its quiet moments, with exquisite correspondences between Mutter and the orchestra. Mutter's most exciting in the quiet moments, too, or something -- I heard her do Mendelssohn's concerto with the NY Phil last year and thought the same thing. Stu and I agreed that we've been ruined for the Brahms Violin Concerto by listening to recorded classical music, where you put the volume up so it's less delicate and distant-sounding. (We were far back in the third balcony at Carnegie.) Honeck put in a good amount of detail work, but you're still listening to a standard-rep violin concerto, so it's not unusually surprising. Also -- and you'll know this if you've ever listened to the Brahms Violin Concerto -- the first movement is incredibly long and doesn't have any good tunes in it. The miniature wind serenade that starts the slow movement was lovely, though, particularly the oboe solo.

You know what's wild, is that Mahler started writing his First Symphony only eight years after Brahms finished his violin concerto. World of difference!

After the concert, Stu and I skipped the ovations (with regrets) to catch a cab down to Grand Central, but we missed the 10:22 train anyway. So we got a couple bottles of Rolling Rock from the beer vendor by the Metro North trains, sat down on one of the great-hall staircases right by the "SITTING ON STAIRCASE IS PROHIBITED" signs (there's always a little crowd of people sitting there), and chatted and admired the painted-on night sky for a while. Home again at 1:15 in the morning! And I've had Mahler 1 playing in my head all day, accompanying the halfhearted blizzard outside.


Blogger nate said...

Nice concert report. (Puts me to shame; I need to be writing up the Oregon Symphony concerts I'm going to.) I'm glad the blizzard cooperated for it, for both you and the PSO.

I heard Manfred Honeck conduct exactly once, with the National Symphony (the blog, it persists our memory) and what I've come to take away from it most in retrospect was his detail work in the very quiet moments -- I'm glad that's a feature of his PSO work and I'm going to have to hear him with the hometown ensemble sometime too. At a minimum I should get around to buying their Mahler 1 disc. If nothing else yet I am glad of the reports that he's working out well with the orchestra.

2/10/2010 11:17 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

Yeah, great writing Jack.

2/11/2010 1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honeck is conducting the PSO playing Mahler's Third on June 11, 2010 in the 'burgh.

2/11/2010 5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's Anonymous Mom again--and did you say the PSO is playing Brahms' 4th Symphony June 2011? !! I'll have to go a couple of times.

2/11/2010 5:49 PM  

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