It has taken one hundred years to reach the northwestern New York première of Mahler's Symphony No. 7. Let's hope the next occasion comes considerably sooner—preferably with JoAnn Falletta still at the controls, for, while the inaugural foray into this truly fantastical score had some serious problems, there was much to admire.
It was February 1981 when I heard the dress rehearsal and first of a series of performances by Rafael Kubelik and the rancorous New York Philharmonic. Throughout all of its seventy-seven glorious minutes, the Czech maestro, shaped, cajoled and drove his charges with a frenzy and passion that were at one with the music—daring on several climactic moments to risk perfect ensemble for the all so elusive goal of artistic truth. He hit far more than he missed, leaving the capacity crowd emotionally drained and forever grateful to have been in the same room with such insight and integrity.
To their credit, Falletta and her talented players served up a reading that begged for a second helping, once the enormity of the task had time for reflection by all concerned: a lustrum should be about right.
Quibbles first: Having the strings resort to tremolo rather than thirty-second notes in the opening measures may be technically arguable, but the resultant lack of intensity got things off on a rather unfortunate footing; placing the cowbells in the rafters may have been faithful to instruction, but ended up sounding totally out of this world; why electronically enhance the mandolin?—at the première, did Mahler have that option? (and, after all, this is Kleinhans Music Hall!); if a pre-concert “chat” must be held to fill the time and sell drinks at “intermission,” why not use those precious minutes to have a “conductor-to-audience” moment about concert etiquette (such a discourse could have eliminated the spurious “George, I-think-it's-over-applause,” which robbed the rest of us of the chance to savour the result and denied the 3rd French horn the opportunity of providing his best muted answer to his colleague's “Nachtmusik” call.
Kudos next: The tenor horn was superb—just what the composer imagined; concertmaster Charles Haupt's svelte tone and delivery-under-fire were a constant pleasure; Martha Malkiewicz's rotund contrabassoon offerings were the pride of the woodwinds; Roman Mekinulov's solo interventions and leadership added many much to overall effect (the cellos are this season's most improved string section); Falletta's sense of the music's mission and drive produced many spectacular moments: the opening “Allegro con fuoco” left the page with conviction—the first movement's coda was worth the price of admission alone; the “Rondo-Finale” sizzled at its bookends and delivered some of the finest playing yet heard from the BPO.
The reservation: Despite the fine playing and obvious conviction, much of Mahler's genius, like misplaced party favours, remained hidden. The overall architecture—so critical in such a massive undertaking—was pushed aside in favour of "getting through." The thousands of horizontal virtues of the music's subtext were frequently stilted by the vertical "correctness" of keeping everything in its place. Ironically, the “Scherzo” (er, no Waltz here, Johann Strauss) had its best moments in the early going even if wayward ensemble threatened to morph into a full-out train wreck, but the excitement created paled in comparison to the far too many "just so" stops-and-starts that only thought-out reckless abandon can morph into art.
Necessarily, conducting can only be learned on the job. With such an excellent lesson here, we can't wait for the next test: Falletta most definitely has enough promise to move to the head of the class. JWR