BWW Review: THE PARK AVENUE CHAMBER SYMPHONY PERFORMS MAHLER'S 1ST SYMPHONY at The Church Of The Good Shepard
Whole lotta Mahler goin' on!
This spring in NYC has been a Mahler fan's dream come true. In the last week alone, NY audiences have had the pleasure of the London Symphony Orchestra, under Simon Rattle performing Mahler's 9th, 10th and Das Lied von der Erde, The Bavarian Radio symphony under Mariss Jansons, performing Mahler's 7th and finally the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony performing Mahler's 1st under the baton of David Bernard. (and in two weeks time the 1st will be done again, this time by the NY Phil with Alan Gilbert)
They say that audiences in Gustav Mahler's time didn't know what to make of his music. In fact, it took no less than Leonard Bernstein's influence in 1967 to finally get the Vienna Philharmonic to program Mahler on a regular basis. Yet in a relatively short time, Mahler has gone on to become one of the most performed composers in the world every season.
Every Mahler performance is an event, but in a time where classical audiences are dwindling and all the biggest institutions (the Met Opera, the NY Phil) are struggling in a big way to attract younger audiences to replenish the cues once filled by an ever-aging audience, the Park Avenue Chamber Orchestra seems to have come up with the best solution yet.
The Inside/Out format, where the audience actually sits among the musicians of the orchestra while they play the performance is the most exciting and original concert-going experience the classical music audience has seen in a very long time.
Maestro David Bernard does a splendid job of welcoming the audience to the experience and sheparding them through the performance, with musical examples and lessons along the way. He is one part conductor, one part musical sherpa, and the audience was spellbound.
In Mr. Bernard's Mahler 1st, the first movement was a perfect blend of mystery and expectation, evenly paced. Beginning with the dreamy, tension-filled haze, punctuated beautifully along the way by military style fanfares appearing to arrive from great distances away - first presented by the clarinets, and then by offstage trumpets. Mahler buried his "Wayfarer" theme from the Songs of a Wayfarer" in the exposition and Maestro Bernard revealed it in lovely unadorned fashion. He built slowly and steadily to the great blast at the climax of the development, giving the movement a undeniable feeling arrival at its conclusion.
Mr. Bernard explained to the audience that the second movement was a folk dance, a Ländler, taken to great heights, and provided examples prior to the movement to illustrate clearly how Mahler chose the more "homey" qualities of the Ländler folk dance rather than the more stately style of the waltz to provide a more earthy feel to the music.
The third and fourth movements were played without at break to great effect. 3rd is a ghostly funeral march, with more than a few klezmer accents. Beginning quietly in a solo double bass, followed in succession by bassoon, tuba and eventually the full orchestra. movement freely borrows on the "Frere Jacques" folk melody (although Mahler referred to is as "Bruder Martin") - but transformed into a creepy minor key form. Mr. Bernard deftly tamped the volume and tempo at the end of the 3rd movement to create maximum effect when the huge crash of the stormy finale began. controlled chaos of the 4th movement brought back several elements from the first movement, unifying the symphony as a whole.
At the symphony's premier in 1899, the audience booed and hissed. At the PACS's performance, the audience leapt to its' feet in a standing ovation.
The PACS's Inside/Out concerts are nothing short of a classical revolution. They are performance, promotion, outreach and education all wrapped up in one. And the audiences at the concerts are ecstatically enthusiastic about them. Exhibit A: my wife turned to me after the last concert and said: "You know, if I had attended one of these Inside/Out concerts when I was a kid, I would absolutely have taken music lessons, and possibly have become a musician." That is the kind of impact these concerts are having. No other concert series in New York - or probably anywhere - can say that. This critic hopes the Inside/Out concept is one that the PACS will continue for many seasons to come!