Appreciating of the healing power of music came quickly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, as it did in many American cities with major institutions in the performing arts. In my home town of San Francisco, Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony on September 12, 2001. Michael Steinberg called this “the darkest music of [Mahler’s] life;” and the program had been scheduled months in advance. The show went on, and its cathartic value is probably still remembered by all who were there.
Recognizing the emotional impact that Mahler’s music can provide, the New York Philharmonic planned a special “Concert for New York” consisting of a performance of Mahler’s second symphony (“Resurrection”). The event was scheduled for the evening of September 10, 2011. The Philharmonic was joined by the New York Choral Artists (Joseph Flummerfelt, Director), soprano Dorothea Röschmann, and mezzo Michelle DeYoung. Conductor Alan Gilbert preceded the performance with a few brief remarks suggesting that this particular selection would help New Yorkers reflect, heal, and persevere. Anyone who knows the Mahler repertoire will probably stand solidly behind Gilbert’s proposition.
Most important, however, was that this was an event for the City of New York, rather than just the subscriber community of the New York Philharmonic. In his review for The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini described how the Philharmonic management chose to stress the public nature of the event:
The Philharmonic did all it could to make this program “A Concert for New York,” as it was called. Free tickets were distributed in the afternoon. Some weeks earlier the Philharmonic had set aside 700 tickets for first responders and families of the victims of Sept. 11, and all 700 were given away. On Saturday night some 2,000 seats were set up in Lincoln Center Plaza for a live video relay of the performance. The concert was also recorded for broadcast on public television on Sunday night.
Having now experienced the televised version, I feel it appropriate to offer some observations.
First of all, given the social context of the event, I agree with Tommasini that “detailed critical assessment” is not in order; but I also agree with him that “the performance was consistently impressive.” I was particularly struck by Gilbert’s sense of rhythm and the ways in which rhythmic patterns emerged from both agreement and disagreement with an underlying metric pulse. His overall sense of pace for the entire symphony was, for the most part, consistent with most of the interpretations I have heard; but I think he was particularly expressive in matters of climax and cadence. One result however was that an audience like this one, which does not devote much time listening to Mahler, was fooled by the abrupt cadence preceding the recapitulation in the first movement and burst out with spontaneous applause. Gilbert handled this perfectly, allowing just a little extra time before beginning the recapitulation and thus maintaining the overall pace of the movement.
On the vocal side I am not embarrassed to admit that I am a sucker for DeYoung’s rich mezzo sound. Her interpretation of “Urlicht” could not have been better. Even her facial expressions perfectly enhanced the English version of the text given as subtitles. This was my first encounter with Röschmann, and her opening passage soared to heights above the rest of the ensemble with all the angelic ease that Mahler must have idealized. By the time I got to the duet of these two soloists, I was sold on having new favorite interpreters. The chorus was equally impressive, particularly when considering how much of what they sing much be delivered in a hushed tone.
However, when we get to matters of dynamics, I have to pick one nit. The good news is that it has nothing to do with the performers. Rather, it has to do with the dynamics coming from my loudspeakers, which sounded as if they were being monitored, balanced, and remixed with an oppressive level of micromanagement. Eventually I realized that the only microphone I ever saw was one beside the bass drum (which came close to inaudible in all but its loudest passages). I then realized that I have been spoiled by institutions that seem to be much more dedicated toward achieving quality levels of audio capture. Between the Keeping Score DVDs about Mahler and Mahler performances I have experienced on my computer through the Digital Concert Hall, I know that the technology is there to do better justice to both the broad range and the intricate subtleties of Mahler’s dynamics than I experienced in this telecast. Ironically, almost all of the camera work served well to enhance the listening experience; but it seems as if the audio crew fell short of effectively delivering their package to the listener’s ears.
It suppose it is possible that this project was conceived on very short notice. However, I find that hard to believe, given that this event must have been anticipated for quite some time. What concerns me is that the New York Philharmonic has not yet recognized the value of media capture to the extent that so many other performing ensembles and soloists have now come to appreciate. Could it be that, with the broadening of perspectives through cyberspace, we may start thinking of the Philharmonic as being a bit on the provincial side?