Ze Tschörmans Are Coming!

Dan Albertson

[January 2010.]

[The article below is a rare foray into the concert review. My longtime friend Gerard McBurney gave me an irresistible offer and though much of the experience will not be fit for print, below are some anecdotes that I hope will amuse. After all, “de temporum fine comœdia.” Thank you, Carl Orff. Thank you, Gerard. The ribald stories were unforgettable. Not to worry: I am not sharing them. I give gratitude to sundry others met along the way: Hillary Leben, a daughter of Saugatuck (a town whose limerick would surely end badly) with a mutual contempt for the term “new media,” Janet Parker who shares my love of Schumann, Carmen my fellow “radical” met on the train, Dr. Adam Dubin for his engaging conversations and our nascent friendship, A. and C. from the security team for amiably keeping me in check, Augusta Read Thomas and Bernard Rands for a pleasant hour of discussion (with too many agreements; we must argue next time!), and Caravaggio across the street for being a delightful thug and such a distraction that I had El Greco to myself. Longer and longer these forewords become. Ach! One day, I promise to make my introduction longer than the article. Hold me to it, Walt.]

Felix MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844)*. Gustav MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 in G major (1899-1901, with earlier drafts and later revisions). Nicole Cabell (sop), Viviane Hagner (vln)*, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Markus Stenz (cond.). Thu., Dec. 3* & Fri., Dec. 4, 2009.

Why would a rural fellow go to Chicago? Tschörmans had invaded the city, while somehow an American had slipped in as vocal soloist. How could I resist?

The safe confines of Symphony Center quickly dispelled my qualms about being in a metropolis. Before long Gerard walked me to the rehearsal, where Viviane Hagner and the orchestra were working on the first movement of the Mendelssohn. I heard the second movement before they concluded with a return to the work’s opening, which I had missed. What happened to the finale? Already fine-tuned, I guess. The maestro and most musicians exited stage left. Hagner lingered and played alone, while select musicians behind her played alone too. She suddenly asked for advice on her violins; she was trying out two. A violist and I went to the stage. I gave her my opinion, in German, and then asked, in English, about Holt and Chin, whose concerti are the only works I have heard her play. She seemed surprised. (I only realized later how much of a Lügner I was; I have, in fact, also heard her play Berg.) She asked if I were a composer. I shook my head no and told her, Musikwissenschaftler. Then, almost to prove the point, I asked about vibrato. Thank you, Sir Roger. She indulged me thoughtfully, more than I imagined, and delighted me with news of her changing use of this dreaded seven-letter word depending on the repertory. How nice that a rising star takes time to speak to a nobody, I thought.

The concert itself followed many hours later. Enter Dr. Dubin, a keen enthusiast whose knowledge likely eclipses mine. He is an HIP devotee too, to my delight. Thank you, Sir Roger. Begin, Herr Mendelssohn. My compulsion for clock-watching took over and I could not resist making mental notes, being without pen or paper; the approximate durations were 14:04 and 15:09 (yes, I elided the final two movements), on the slow side. Vibrato was certainly noticeable, from soloist and orchestra alike, but what was most apparent was how palatable the concerto is. I confess that I usually skip it, whenever possible. I detected much more subtlety than expected for a warhorse and the cadenza in the first movement had a suitably Bachian air. Mendelssohn wrote sublime slow music and this concerto is further proof that he had a life after his adolescence. Now, how about reviving his oratorios?

Dr. Dubin and I talked at length during intermission. We agreed, for instance, that so much of the repertory is unknown and unexplored. We need our own orchestra, I guess, and some rich patrons. Before long, Mahler had started. Yes, I am ill, but here are the approximate durations: 17:03, 9:53, 20:50, 9:20. An old favorite of mine, with Bruno Walter and Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Globe) from 1952, has these durations: 16:19, 8:50, 19:31, 8:29. As one sees, Stenz and the CSO were slow. Almost every Mahler performance is langsam these days. A more recent good account, for instance, is Michael Gielen with Christine Whittlesey from 1988 (reissued on hänssler), which clocks in at 16:56, 10:31, 20:54, 8:12, yet feels swift. The biggest problem with Stenz lay not in the pace itself, but rather in the transitions between tempi, which were often abrupt or tepid, either grinding the music to a halt or taking it shakily into the next passage. A prime example was the sleigh-bell motif in the opening movement — quite slow at first, then taken at fluctuating paces with each recurrence. The sight of Stenz channeling his inner Bernstein was a surprise and though I appreciate his animation, I also found his mannerisms distracting. I wonder if he conducts new-music groups this way.

The CSO was mostly fine, but special notice must go to the celli and bassi, which were almost too good. Concertmaster Robert Chen seemed to enjoy playing the Devil, or at least his fiddle, in the second movement. The varying models of clarinet were readily audible. The top winds were less impressive and could have earned the respect of a Bulgarian radio orchestra straight out of the ’70s. Hearing flutes and oboes wobble out of control at key moments of lyrical warmth was almost painful. Who thinks that such playing is beautiful? Thank you, Sir Roger. I also heard parts of the symphony that could not be transferred to the home environment: Minute cymbal crashes, for instance, and the fact that the harp plays even before the final movement.

Cabell, who I confess I was dreading, was better than average in a short but important part that is almost never cast properly. Bernstein’s use of a boy soprano may be the most infamous case, but is far from the only one. She is an opera star, yet stayed restrained enough to convey an adult view of childhood without pretense. Her diction could have been “harder,” but non-Tschörmans oft sing their consonants too softly. After the concert, C. told me, in response to my remark about the audience behaving quite well, that Chicago crowds would tolerate no less. Go figure.

Next day, more dreadful weather. The 2009-10 season of the orchestra’s “Beyond the Score” project began, whose mission is to expand and enlighten audiences. The Fourth Symphony was profiled in “Heaven or Earth?” I was not sure if I could tolerate this symphony, my least favorite in the Mahler output, for a second consecutive day. Dizziness and fatigue were not helping me. The program began with the main attraction, a montage of live recitation, orchestral and piano examples and video, which is where Hillary enters the picture. A bad pun. How much time she invested in the project, I would not wish to guess, but the results were engrossing. The presentation was perfect, with not a single stumble along the way. Gerard recited, while William Brown and Laura T. Fisher added commentary, drawing some laughs with Mahler’s own words. I often chuckled to myself, but elsewhere; I must be wired differently. Gerard obviously knows more about Natalie Bauer-Lechner than I knew, and anyone who is not named Henry-Louis de La Grange was sure to have learned some new facts and seen some new images. I especially appreciated the differences between the original “Wunderhorn” setting of the 1890s and its revision in the symphony. My seatmate this time never revealed her name, but told me how much she appreciated the presentation and how some of the symphony was sounding familiar, even though she had never heard all of it. By now, it was feeling too familiar to me.

After intermission, with the enormous screen out of the way and the rehearsal piano loaded offstage, the orchestra returned to play the symphony in full. Some idiot up ahead of us looked repeatedly at an electronic gadget of some sort, which I felt like using to smack some sense into him. Orchestras never play in prison, though, so I tried to ignore him. His mini-screen roiled the darkness. Baudrillard was right. I dozed off during the third movement, to my chagrin, but was awake in time to record the durations, fear not! They were somewhat different today: 17:21, 9:22, 21:08, 9:05, giving me a newfound respect for audio engineers who assemble “composite” recordings. The basic pulse was the same, but the gradations were ever so slightly “off.” If the passion was intact, so were the wobbles. Principal oboist Eugene Izotov, already upsetting me from yesterday, almost fell apart at the end this time but managed to finish. I finished too and headed home, never seeing Gerard to say goodbye, because he had gone home as well. Poor fellow; he persisted despite not feeling well. Me too. At least some blue sky was seen on Friday, perhaps the himmlisches Leben of Mahler transmogrified. Thank you, Sol.