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Mothers and the Nation-state

a concert at Bard College
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun May 8th, 2016

Conductor Leon Botstein with the Orchestra Now and Bard Conservatory

At the Bard College Mothers' Day matinee in the Sosnoff Theater, Dawn Upshaw sang Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs accompanied by the TŌN Orchestra Now and the Bard Conservatory. Upshaw’s performance was impeccable in svelte tone and force. The Romantic lyrics of love, longing, and tender memories reflected late Romanticism. While the lyrics are not lame, they portrayed a more innocent, rural, and lost world compared to contemporary life. Upshaw conjured a lost world in which men thought well of women.

The second half of the program featured Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, often labeled as his “Tragic” Symphony. With nearly a hundred musicians on stage, this was the fulfillment of Mahler’s sensibility that you could not enroll enough musicians to perform this symphony. The satire on military marches in the first movement exerted a tremendous influence on Dmitri Shostakovich’s career: it offered the template Shostakovich often returned to for oblique critique of Soviet life. Leon Botstein conducted this first movement with inspired finesse, coaxing cohesive unity as students thrust emotion into the notes and tempo.

The contrasting pastoral idyll of the second movement arrived as lyrical relief that melted into tuneful pastiche. Here were woods, rolling hills of green, and trilling streams outside a reposeful cottage with small chores and children to attend to. This domestic daydream gives way to a colorful portrait of city life in the third movement, a Scherzo describing the joys and ambivalent pleasure of urban landscape. Although somewhat critical of the hectic city, this remains an attractive sketch of life in Vienna.

There has been much debate about this symphony being personal, but the symphony remains more social statement than personal vision. The apocalyptic elements of the famous fourth movement continue to be as relevant today as when they were penned in 1905. The collective aspects of urban life criticized in the third movement become enhanced as they are joined with the military themes of the first movement.

Mahler’s cultural critique of the massive nation-state with its inclination toward war and atrocity dramatized by three “hammer” blows is as electrifying today as when it was first performed. This pessimistic warning retains relevant vibrancy. Botstein and the orchestra evoked visceral surprise and shocking condemnation of war in all its false glory. Yes, this symphony is prophetic.

And why was it being played on Mothers' Day? A sentimental celebration of mothers has nothing to do with the origin of Mothers' Day which was rooted in a movement for mothers to resist war. The American holiday never had the intention of merely celebrating motherhood. Mothers' Day was a movement to ban war so that mothers would no longer keen over the corpses of their sons. (And shortly it will be their daughters.) The performance of Mahler’s great prophetic work warning of wars to come was the apt choice for Mothers' Day. This remains a symphony that still has the power to shock and stun. Those attending will be carrying those warning notes between their ears for quite some time.