BERKELEY—Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 5, heard here with the inspiring St. Louis Symphony the other day, is an extraordinary work, written during the creative euphoria of the Austrian composer’s recent marriage and honeymoon. Its long 68-minute musical path reminds me of a journey starting in a depressing, grimy industrial district (say, in Linz), and heading toward the dreamland of sunny Lake Worth, meandering through picturesque old towns (Hallstatt), bath resorts (Bad Ischl), and thriving vineyards, in anything but a crow-flies straight-line vector.
Mahler created things on a grander scale than other symphonists, and he pushed his players to the max in stretching their limits. The bassoonists in the 5th even extend their resonant cylinder with mailing-tube extensions, lengthening it and allowing even lower notes. And at the other extreme the solo trumpet sounding the opening notes of the rebellious Funeral March all but bursts his/her lungs with the piercing high notes.
The performance at a nearly filled Zellerbach Hall left me breathless and moved, perhaps even more so than the memorable lead trumpeter (Karin Bliznik).
Credit for the deeply moving performance goes to the perennially underrated Music Director David Robertson, now in his 11th SLS season. For years we have asked, when will this maestro be offered one of the plum podia of the prestigious orchestras farther east? With a rare exception like James Levine, those orchestras inevitably look to foreigners for the music director. Perhaps the time has come for a Robertson name-change to something more continental, like David Rombaud, or Davidde Robrestu, or Robini, or simply Robesón. That might finally get some results.
In any event the 5th offered high drama and explosive emotions from a committed romantic of a century ago, with stormy contrasts and vehemence in the angry funereal movement. After a half hour, the minor keys give way to Part Two, which offers an upbeat major-key scherzo built around an Austrian Ländler country dance in three-quarters time. For the soaring solo lines Robertson took the unusual step of having the French-horn soloist Roger Kaza move up front, next to the podium, projecting even better than from the back. His strings also produced sublime pianissimos, like soft pillows.
The finale section offers the yet-more-sublime Adagietto, with strings only, producing arguably the most breath-taking music of all. Had Mahler never written anything else, this brief segment would place him among the composing elite.
After, deserved solo bows were accorded to Kaza, stratospheric trumpeter Bliznik and harpist Allegra Lilly, all SLS regulars.
Credit for the deeply moving performance to the perennially underrated Music Director David Robertson, now in his 11th SLS season. For years we have asked, when will this maestro be offered one of the plum podia of the prestigious orchestras farther east? With a rare exception like James Levine, those orchestras inevitably look to foreigners as the music director. Perhaps the time has come for a Robertson name change to something more continental, like David Rombaud, or Davidde Robrestu, or Robini, or simply Robesón. That might finally get some results.
Sharing the spotlight in the all-modern weekend programs was the 2013 Saxophone Concerto of John Adams, 58, who is now the most played of all the living American symphonic composers. The free form suggests more rhapsody than concerto, but it puts the solo alto sax of Timothy McAllister firmly at center stage. The orchestra is predominantly more tapestry or carpeting to the sax, until the roles are abruptly reversed, with the orchestra then punctuating the sax line. The second part moves into virtuoso sax, syncopated and mildly jazzy, with the orchestra fully engaged in a series of descending sonic tremors, as if flowing colorfully over the rapids.
In the slower middle section the seesaw battle between the ensemble and solo dissipates, giving the soloist a chance to be soulful and very lyrical—elements rarely emphasized in Adams’ voluminous oeuvre.
Adams here has moved away from his minimalistic style, but it’s very strongly rhythmic, as always, and modern-tonal. I liked the recurrent rapid six-note rainbow figures of the opening. Even though this is not pops-concert fare, it should get repeat hearings—assuming that there are enough McAllisters around to do it justice.
On his alto horn he was beyond reproach, with a sound texture deliberately shaped more like American jazz performers’ than like classical. He had a very disarming look about his play, shrugging a shoulder here and there, as if the music were producing happy twitches and shudders all over.
At the end, conductor Robertson ran into the audience and very nearly had to grab Berkeleyite composer Adams by the collar to come up and take a bow. While his music is high-key and effusive, Adams’ personality is decidedly low-key.
Quite a night all around. And the West Coast music notables in the audience such as Peter Sellars, Peter Pastreich and Paul Dresher attested by their presence to the significance of the West-Coast-tour event.
BOULEZ AFTERMATH—The programs were dedicated to the influential French composer-conductor Pierre Boulez, who passed away at 90. Though he apparently never came to the Cal campus itself, his contemporary-music research lab in Paris IRCAM was the model for UC Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies. Controversial for his outspoken views, he conducted various American orchestras and was notable for his generosity. When some musicians in his Midwestern orchestra once wanted to present some innovative concerts on the side, Boulez agreed to conduct them free of charge, above and beyond his formal commitments.
St. Louis Symphony on tour, concerts Jan. 29 and 31 at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, with differing programs. An offering of Cal Performances. For info: (510) 642-9988, or go online.
©Paul Hertelendy 2016
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.