Mahler Takes Manhattan


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My love for the symphonies of Gustav Mahler isn’t exactly born of my near-pathological hatred of Pink Floyd, especially Roger Waters’ juvenile cynicism and flunky symbolism (or is that flunky cynicism and juvenile symbolism?).

But it certainly puts into sharp contrast the difference between the kind of contrived angst and working-class drudgery that the Floyd has made a career of exploiting, and the real possibilities of capturing profound feelings of dread, sadness, joy and redemption—to name but four—that Mahler has mastered, and without the aid of parlor tricks (e.g. inflatable pigs, laser light shows and idiotic, ham-fisted wall metaphors that were tired before Robert Frost hit puberty).

Mahler famously said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything,” a sentiment so often quoted that I feel I ought to apologize for repeating it here, but for the sake of the newbies, let’s take a moment and think about just what the fuck that means.

His symphonies—a full cycle of which is about to be perpetrated by the iron man of the baton, Valery Gergiev, and the Marinsky Orchestra for five performances at Carnegie Hall, to be followed early next year with Gergiev driving the London Symphony Orchestra to complete the cycle at Avery Fisher Hall—are massive, but by no means share the kitchen-sink philosophy so often embraced by prog rock bands, i.e. throwing in every gloop and gleep you are capable of making and equating dynamics with sentiment and bombast with importance.

Prog rockers and art students seem to think that they have a handle on the human condition, but let’s face it, the best of Floyd’s post-Syd output is only about as good as a decent Steve Miller Band song, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was irrelevant the very second Ronald Reagan took office.

But there is truth and beauty in every work by Mahler. If abstract art, like symphonic music, actually describes things—man’s relationship with the universe, the creator, the higher powers that live beyond us and within us, etc.— Mahler is the impassioned king of the realm. His vision, unlike Roger Waters and his gloomy progeny, is one of pathos, not bathos.

In Mahler’s music, there is no shortage of special effects via terrifyingly effective percussion ensembles, but it is his adagios and quieter passages that will buckle your knees with their ferocious beauty. Beyond that, few things in life are as thrilling as the gale-force wallop of the Mahlerian orchestra blowing your socks off.

Mahler completed nine symphonies (before falling victim to the same curse that bested Beethoven, Schubert and Dvorák, among others) and each one of them is a motherfucker, perfectly blurring the continuum between the sweeping whoosh of late Romanticism and the new-fangled tonalities of 20thcentury modernism, and he created a music that is (actually, now that I think about it, like the best Led Zeppelin) both forwardlooking and rooted appropriately in the past, without mummifying it.

I cannot pretend that, even as a fairly scrupulous and disciplined listener, I am anywhere near understanding them all. They are so massive as to make artistic comparisons absurd—the compete works of Michael Bay and James Cameron are dwarfed by any Mahler symphony.

The closest thing I can think of is Beethoven’s Ninth, and even that seems relatively economic compared to Mahler’s gargantuan Weltanschauung. The sheer scale of performing even one of these doozies makes it an event. That Gergiev, who for my money is the best at what he does in the world right now, is taking on the whole she-bang with two of the most powerful orchestras on the planet in New York’s two most-feted concert halls, is momentously, colossally, enormously, supremely, really, really big.

Like the composer himself was fond of saying, “There is a world of difference between a Mahler eighth note and a normal eighth note.” Better get with it.

>> Gergiev and Mariinsky’s Mahler: Six Symphonies in Five Concerts Through Oct. 24, Carnegie Hall, 881 7th Ave. (at W. 57th St.), 212-247-7800.


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