Wednesday, June 29, 2005


I'm still here

The taxi to JFK took two hours in the pouring rain. The driver, an older Italian man who kept singing along with the radio (Ti voglio al piu presto sposar and a few other Europop classics) said he had a bad feeling, and he was right: we missed the plane. Crushing. Luckily a Delta telephone rep managed to sneak us onto a flight on Thursday. Until then I'm still here, huddled by the wheezing Amana air conditioner in my office, so what the hell, I'm posting.

About the Mahler: tremendous. Lorin Maazel kept the notoriously centrifugal Sixth on course, with brisk tempos and wonderfully detailed work from the reeds and the brass section. He sandwiched the Andante between the opening Allegro and the Scherzo--the composer kept flipflopping about where to put it during his lifetime--and I was grateful for this bit of stress management, since it gives you a break from the militant Sturm und Drang of the surrounding movements. Perhaps this tampers with Mahler's supposed narrative structure: the tempest-tossed Everyman who finally gets laid low by the two hammer blows of fate. I'm always a little leery of these plot summaries, even when they issue straight from the horse's mouth. Not Anthony Tommasini. His otherwise acute review in the New York Times suggested that Mahler had been channeling Jake La Motta:
As the hero forges ahead with mindless determination, the first hammer blow (made by a percussionist pummeling a great wooden box with a fearsome-looking felt-covered wooden hammer) knocks him loopy. Crazed and wild-eyed, he tries to go on, or so it seems from the frantic outbursts of counterpoint that are scattered in the orchestra. But the second hammer blow levels the hero, and the bucolic music comes back, this time, as performed here, in some unhinged, dissipating state. Imagine a "Star Wars" character being slowly vaporized.
About those hammer blows: Alma Mahler alway insisted that they were an eerie anticipation of the misfortunes that were to afflict her husband during the coming year. Get out! Especially because Mahler originally inserted five hammer blows into the score, then cut out three. What he asked for was "a short, loud, but dully resounding blow of non-metallic character (like the stroke of an axe)." To this end he had a gigantic drum constructed in Vienna, which was not a great success. As Henry-Louis de La Grange recounts in his humongo, four-part biography:
At the first of the three readings that took place in Vienna in April, the enormous drum was installed for the first time amid a breathless hush. Mahler asked the percussionist to try it out, but the result was weak and muffled. Despite Mahler's insistence, the musician failed to produce a louder tone and Mahler angrily rushed over and struck the intrument with all his force. The inadequacy of the result compared with the effort required to produce it provoked general hilarity among the musicians.
The story of my life. In any case, the hammer blows at the Philharmonic were loud: the people in the first three rows probably had their hair blown back. I couldn't see the drum itself, but the hammer looked like a prop from Land of the Giants, and the percussionist hefted it with obvious relish. One of my companions thought the whole business smacked a little too strongly of Wile E. Coyote--even the jumpcutting textures of the Scherzo struck her as cartoonish--but if pressed, I would be more likely to name Ricochet Rabbit as the symphony's tutelary spirit. On the other hand, I'd probably take the Fourth, or the Third, but not the Sixth, to that proverbial desert island.

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