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Mahler: Awesome & Transcendent at Bard

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon May 13th, 2019

From left: James Bagwell, Eve Gigliotti, Leon Botstein

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 (1895-96) offers the prime Romanic experience: a personal confrontation with Nature. This immersion occurs on both sensuous and spiritual levels. In both cases the immersion is so deep that it moves beyond appreciation and wonder to the frightening abyss beyond the senses where the dissolution of humanism occurs, and the underworld freights no discernable anthropomorphism. We enter the world of mortality, atheism, and possible transcendence after glimpsing the awesome cliff of emptiness and the majestic gulf of despair.

While this experience of Mahler occurred in Austria it reminds me of Byron’s earlier experience near Metaxata in Cephalonia, Greece, where on a ledge Byron wanted to build a house: the immensity of Mount Ainos rising sheer above the ledge with unimaginable height, the swirling cloud crevice where one glances down into a seemingly endless pit, and then turn around: seaward the gentle coastal  plains of Cephalonia draining into the blue expanse of the Adriatic. Mahler confronts the Romantic genre of the Sublime in this symphony, as no other Romantic composer dared.

At the helm conducting was Leon Botstein with the Bard Conservatory Orchestra. The opening movement appears to describe a spring-like thunderstorm that gives way to gentle rain. Horns announce sunrise with the special effects of four trombones. A meandering meditation on the delights of nature follows. There is the charming buzzing of bees and the cute drum solo of marching ants. Nature is a wonderland of delight aside from the frightening meditation on mountain heights. A concluding motif of the hunting horn restores and validates while engaging human experience within the ambiance of nature at the end of the lengthy Part I.

The symphony is a musical poem that meditates on the various levels of nature: from inanimate Otherness to labyrinthian foliage to the oddness of animals and men. An ambitious work like Dante Alighieri’s Comedia, it surfs varied levels of personal experience in nature with scientific observation and religious contemplation. Mahler wrote the symphony in a state of being possessed by the Muse, as Stravinsky later did with Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). Mahler conducted this symphony more than any of his other symphonies. The listener’s joy in this symphony remains its constant dramatic and dynamic shifts, as each new shifting perspective discovers a wonderland of amazement. An electricity of immediacy dominates the music; the orchestra delivered the exciting dynamic changes with thrilling zest.

The long first movement overview with four exciting trombones offers an appreciation of Pan and Dionysos, and is followed by a Summer march, which provides an ambitious processional and ceremonial aesthetic like Dante’s Paradiso. Such extroversion quickly metamorphosizes into the personal in the Second movement, “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me,” which remains my favorite movement due to its playful charm. The Third Movement, “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me” shifts from the pleasant song of a cuckoo to the frightening nightmare appearance of a wolf pack, dramatizing the dark side of Nature with screeching flutes, piccolo, and clarinets.  

With deep bass settings, “What Mankind Tells Me” supplies the human voice in chorus set to a brief psalm-like excerpt from Also Sprach Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, which supplies warning with aspiration amid mortality. Mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti sang this poem with passionate éclat. The chorus from the Fifth movement moves upward to the heavens with a plea for mercy and reverent prayer. These two choral movement were sensitively conducted by James Bagwell.

The long concluding Adagio “speaks” in an ethereal tone as if attempting to describe God’s love in the universe. Discarding the personal view and even the anthropomorphic view, we are given a musical description transcendence itself. An elegiac tone infuses generosity and hints at the limitations of humanity in the faced of Eternity. At the opening of the movement violinist Bihan Li excelled in tender lyricism while concertmaster Alex van der Veen delivered a sensitive and strong finale on his violin.

During the symphony Liri Ronen and William Loveless supplied outstanding horn solos. Timpanists Dániel Matei and Jonathan Collazo supplied arresting thunder. Amy Cassiere on oboe was remarkable. The unity of all players, especially the strings, delivered a transcendental experience.

This concert was dedicated to cellist Robert Martin who designed and lead Bard’s double-degree program since 2005. Martin was also Vice President of Bard with many other hats in addition to teaching music and philosophy. Martin will now be moving to Bard College Berlin. In his honor a scholarship has been established in his name.