June 2nd Saturday | Esa-Pekka Salonen and the MET Orchestra, with Karen Cargill and Stuart Skelton at Carnegie Hall | New York, NY

June 6th Tuesday | Esa-Pekka Salonen and the MET Orchestra, with Christian Tetzlaff and Anne Sofie von Otter at Carnegie Hall | New York, NY

It feels good to be back in New York.

Now that the semester is over I can finally bask in the leisure of concert-going in the city without having to worry about readings or upcoming deadlines. I’ve been eyeing Carnegie Hall’s season-end set of Mahler concerts for a while. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to the full Mahler program on May 30 (Des Knaben Wunderhorn with Susan Graham and Matthew Polenzani, and the First), which means I definitely have to attend the last two concerts.

To be honest I’m not familiar with Esa-Pekka Salonen other than his few recordings with LA Phil in my iTunes library and, of course, his appearance in the Apple commercial. Based on my limited knowledge, I suppose Salonen is on the more cutting-edge end of classical musicians. I’m curious, and that is why I’m particularly drawn to these two concerts conducted by Salonen even if not for the Mahler program itself.

What I like about going to concert is the immersive experience. I’ve studied Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde extensively. However, I’ve never listened to the whole cycle as attentively as I did on Saturday afternoon. What strikes me the most in this live experience is the final song “Der Abschied,” which, I’m a little embarrassed to say, I’ve only listened to fragmentarily before. Sitting high above inside the concert hall, I have the view of the whole orchestra and can capture the sound of each instrument in all the solo parts. At times the orchestration of “Der Abschied” is reminiscent of some of the most beautiful moments in Mahler’s symphonies like the Adagietto of the Fifth and the ending of the Eighth. When I think about Das Lied von der Erde, I think about life, death and salvation, but when the harp solo floats above the orchestra, I recognize immediately Mahler’s coded message of love, as if I were hearing the Adagietto, and it almost brings tears to my face, especially knowing how circumstances have changed for Mahler from the Fifth to Das Lied. Mahler composed the Adagietto during perhaps the happiest time of his life. Whereas Das Lied came in the midst of catastrophes: the death of Mahler’s daughter, his resignation from Wiener Hofoper and the diagnosis of a deadly heart condition. So in the quasi transcendent harp solo of “Der Abschied” what I hear is Mahler’s recollection of his bygone happiness, and it is heartbreaking. Just as Dante’s Francesca tells us in the fifth canto of the Inferno: “Nessun maggior dolore / Che ricordarsi del tempo felice / Nella miseria”—there is no greater sorrow than remembering the happy time in misery. Mahler might identify with Francesca while composing his earthly songs, as he recalls the joyful moments of his life that shall not return.

Perhaps that is why Mahler added seven “ewig” at the end of this farewell. He yearns for that impossible return. Quite unlike what is said in the program notes, the ending of “Der Abschied” by no means “comes to a serene, hopeful conclusion.” In my opinion, the tone is extremely disturbing and unsettling beneath the ethereal and fragile melodic line. This is not a cry of hope, not even an illusion of it; instead, “Der Abschied” is a lament, a sigh, a complete disillusionment of the earthly world wrapped inside the Mahlerian irony. With his musical rhetoric, Mahler makes the utmost hopeless situation sound light and bright, credibly. God, he is brilliant!

During Saturday’s performance Salonen manages to balance the solo parts in “Der Abschied,” especially with the oboe and the flute, and he does so elegantly without forcing either the voice or the instrument to overpower the other. The MET Orchestra, given its operatic experience, is also an excellent choice to perform Mahler’s songs. I once heard from the musicians of Vienna Phil that the experience at Wiener Staatsoper makes their playing more versatile, because operas train their ears to capture human voices. That’s why I find MET Orchestra’s Saturday performance of Mahler’s Das Lied mesmerizing. Under Salonen’s baton, this orchestra carries out the brilliance of Mahler’s orchestration and at the same time blends comfortably with the solo voice. As a Mahler fanatic, I also couldn’t resist the temptation to link Das Lied to Mahler’s conducting career in New York. I know how much Vienna Phil likes to boast their lineage that goes back to Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. So when I listen to pieces from Mahler’s Vienna period, I’d like to imagine him composing with the sound of Vienna in his head. And when I hear the sound of the MET Orchestra on stage, I’m also imagining Mahler interweave the sound of this very orchestra into Das Lied, since he already started conducting at the MET before composing his song cycle. How miraculous, watching a slim, short, middle-aged European converse with the soul of a fellow composer-conductor from a century earlier via the same orchestra!

Salonen’s conducting gestures (especially the way he holds the baton) somehow remind me of MTT, another conductor full of energy yet never let elegance go amiss. What differs Salonen from other conductors, in my opinion, is his particular affinity to his fellow countryman—Sibelius. I’m never really interested in Sibelius before entering Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night. Of course, the violin soloist of the night—Christian Tetzlaff—only makes the attraction irresistible. I can’t remember exactly when was the last time I heard Tetzlaff (somewhere in the Bay Area a few seasons back probably), but I know he is the kind of soloist who has the power to light up the whole stage, and Sibelius’s violin concerto might just be the perfect piece for that. I was entranced by Tetzlaff’s Sibelius, and some people couldn’t even refrain from applauding at the end of the first movement. Tetzlaff bowed politely as a response to the overly enthusiastic audience. He’s just that good.

The D minor key of Sibelius’s violin concerto, triggering my recent paper-writing memories about Mahler’s Third Symphony and the uncanny scherzo of the Seventh (without going into Beethoven’s Ninth), is saturated with emotions. And Tetzlaff, no doubt, with his equally amazing prowess and sensibility is the right fit for a Sibelius soloist. Was he playing Bach last time? I couldn’t remember, but Tetzlaff’s artistic versatility never fails to amaze me. What surprised me the most on Tuesday night is the flow of his play, the continuity of the melodramatic line, at times even too fully charged with emotions and overshadows his skills. Watching Tetzlaff unleash his passion on stage, I was still trying so hard to remember what he played last time, because with the Sibelius he was somehow different from the calm and cerebral German violinist I was familiar with. Undoubtedly, Tetzlaff was on fire Tuesday night, and Salonen not only welcomed but also channeled all of that energy. The MET Orchestra, like often during an opera performance, wholeheartedly supported Tetzlaff’s outpour. For a moment his violin indeed was as expressive as human voice, if not more. By giving the stage to the soloist, the orchestra enhances the dramatic effect of the music. I close my eyes, telling myself that this interweaving theatricality and musical flux, precisely, is what keeps me coming to the concert hall. It is pure magic.

Tetzlaff’s burst of emotions in the first half was relieved after the intermission with Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, which I would unapologetically consider as my favorite among Mahler’s songs, despite the inauspicious undertones of the cycle. Anne Sophie von Otter delivered firmly but tenderly. The last time I saw her on stage was three years ago in Berkeley, when she performed a mostly Brahms program with Emmanuel Ax. I’ve probably said more than enough about Mahler already, but I just really can’t let go of how much I like this mixture of melancholy and nostalgia in his Kindertotenlieder, and von Otter (with a particular maternal touch) carried it out beautifully and movingly.

My takeaway of these two MET Orchestra concerts? I discovered Sibelius, I love Mahler more than ever, and I am captivated by Salonen. It is a magical trinity. Believe it or not, this is also my last concert in the U.S. before I move to Europe. I will most definitely miss the classical music scene in this country, but you know what, more excitement awaits, and the adventure is out there!

Until then!


Concert Program for June 2nd

Schumann, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 97, “Rhenish”

Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde 

Concert Program for June 6th

Mahler, Blumine

Sibelius, Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47

Mahler, Kindertotenlieder

Sibelius, Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105


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