When tickets to Sunday night’s Oregon Symphony performance of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony fell my way, the Classical Music Critic’s left eyebrow arched, he peered over his spectacles and with absolutely no edge in his voice to betray him, said, “It’s long.” Long, my brother? Long? I know long. Long is when the stream of time starts to puddle up … and then flow backward, away from me. (Like the Mississippi River after the New Madrid earthquake of 1812.) You look down at your watch and it’s 8:43. Hours pass. Look again and it’s 8:37. Have you been going the speed of light? No, you’ve been in an excruciating play or concert or movie that you can’t escape, a time eddy. Having canoed through these treacherous timestreams before, and survived, “long” does NOT deter me. And the Classical Music Critic, let’s call him Stevie, realized my firm resolve, brought out a reference book that sought to de-mystify the Mahler Nine, from here on known simply as Nine, and improperly prepared, I folded my body into the torture device known as a seat in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Nine trembles into life as a low, intermittent murmur, conductor Carlos Kalmar motioning to the deepest horns and strings to begin. And immediately Mozart’s Quintet in C Major comes to mind, the contrast of it, that deep cello rising confidently, a growly friction that emerges as a melody of sorts, one of my favorite openings. This is apropos nothing really, though Mahler’s wife Alma recounted that the composer died with Mozart’s name on his lips. (See how we grasp at the slightest biographical evidence to “understand” both what we hear and how we think about what we hear? This thought will escape from parentheses before you know it.) So, low and intermittent, emphasized by plucked notes. Some Mahler analysts claim to detect an irregular rhythm in this, and perhaps it really is there: They say it’s a musical reflection of Mahler’s heart problems, an arrhythmia captured in the beginning of his Death Symphony. (See previous parenthetical!) And then tremulousness subsiding, the heart steady, horns call us to a lush, stringy, sweet orchestral melody, pastoral even.
If we were in a story ballet, the happy shepherd would be gesturing to his happy bride-to-be from a nearby hillock. But this being Mahler, truly, we know this happy harmony will not last, and as I examine my notes afterwards, sure enough:”then darkening and bang we speed along darker, pulsing, too loud for sweet, too brassy, a crescendo and then back to the lush beginning.” In the long first movement, there are serious complications, returns to the melody, more complications. The trombones make a weird, throaty sound, competing musical lines clash and resolve in drumming, the simplest, quietest moment is abruptly overtaken. Sometimes it sound “exotic” like a Conan, to my ears both kitschy and cinematic (more on cinematic later). And then it ends, quietly, fewer and fewer resources of the orchestra invoked, heading for one high, barely audible note.
Continue reading I’ve got the Mahler in me