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TŌN Orchestra romps with Weber & Mahler

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Feb 18th, 2018

Leon Botstein and the TŌN Orchestra

Carl Maria von Weber’s Concerto No. 1 for Clarinet and Orchestra (written at 24 and premiered in 1811) still holds pride of place in the clarinet repertoire due to its wit, elegance, and superior writing for the clarinet, Weber’s favorite wind instrument. Elias Rodriguez, winner of TŌN’s 2017 Concerto Competition, played this dramatic and demanding piece with fierce finesse and casual aplomb.

The clarinet enters with melancholy high notes, yet rapidly turns to throaty triplets plunging to the bottom of the clarinet’s register. Rodriguez handled the virtuoso dynamics of this piece with smooth acrobatic tone that exuded passion, beauty, and spanking, joking mischief, as this near-operatic program story demanded romance, successful courting, an objector to the marriage, and the objector being ejected from the wedding reception with a finale full of delirious merriment. Rodriguez was articulate, genial, and humorous in his introduction to this classic gem that appears to have dancing legs in any century.

Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony offers a musical feast. If you wish to show off the talents of an orchestra, this is the masterpiece for the whole orchestra to aspire to. Sitting on the cusp between late Romantic and early Modern because of its innovative harmonies and free-wheeling use of collage, there is much to please anyone’s ear. Yet since it is so long and remains an extremely difficult symphony to conduct (especially the final movement), Mahler’s 7th is rarely performed. 

The symphony opens with a somber dirge-like meditation on death that begins with rowing-like strokes journeying through the ambiguity of Nature to the Underworld. This opening movement is itself a mini-symphony and the orchestra played this with a unified perfection that is rare. The following Night-music movement appears to evoke a moral gravity acquired from Hades—just as in the Odyssey, Odysseus emerges a changed man from the experience. The next shadowy scherzo movement remains one of Mahler’s most original and humorous inventions: orchestral instruments become like Mozart’s magic flute, mocking fear of darkness and death, yet there is also a social, moral warning as if all his musical companions have become pigs under Circe’s spell. Here the orchestra articulated the nearly haphazard fun in which Mahler’s mischievous wit wandered.

After this marvelous atmospheric mystery, one arrives at the city of the dead, Vienna. This raucous Dantean satire on Viennese popular music is simply a hoot, dramatizing his early recollections of cliché in Vienna as a child. The fourth movement provides the most erotic music Mahler ever wrote—lush, romantic, trilling into the companionship of friendship.

The rondo finale begins with a fusillade of virtuoso tympani in C major, the dawn of a new world? Perhaps a new musical perspective in rather traditional Romantic idiom that seems to paint an optimistic future for the city of Vienna. Is the conclusion a triumph of earnest optimism or mere theatrical irony that belabors the final bleakness of death? The ethereal ambiguity remains difficult to achieve without catering to either fatuousness or cynicism. Some find the reversal of mood, motif, and atmosphere to be an unearned optimism, yet in following Leonard Bernstein’s joyous interpretation, Leon Botstein, as conductor, successfully drew out the cheerful optimism of the rather orgasmic Allegro with brass blazing, bells ringing, and strings sweeping. Who could begrudge an Odysseus-like fantasy of Vienna welcoming Mahler, the world-wandering conductor, to a triumphant homecoming in 1908, three years before his untimely death? Mahler's Seventh is simply a breathtaking epic for all ages and the TŌN Orchestra delivered a powerful, memorable performance.

Attendance (though not ticket sales) may have been diminished by the prevailing blustery snow storm, which in itself was sheer manic thrill to drive through hill and dale. I would have not missed this truly Olympic symphony for all the muscular Olympics of the world.