Mahler, Sibelius, Salonen: A Magical Trinity

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

“Für alle Zeit und Ewigkeit”

April 24th Monday | Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera | New York, NY


I would never forgive myself if I missed Renée Fleming’s farewell Marschallin.

Against my very weak self control over shopping in general, I bought a last-minute full-price ticket to the Met on Monday evening. What can I say to account for my impulsive purchase (that would force myself to downgrade my diet to dirt for god knows how many weeks to come)—I still would do the same without blinking my eyes. 

I’ve long been wanting to see Der Rosenkavalier live. In fact, BSO opened this season with a stellar lineup of this Strauss’s opera unstaged (Fleming along with Susan Graham and Erin Morley), but I missed it—stupid me! Well, I could still somehow justify my decision, because Der Rosenkavalier is an opera that must be staged. The music itself just wouldn’t do the opera justice. Der Rosenkavalier is all about theatricality. Perhaps that is also why I’m very excited about this new production at the Met by Robert Carsen. It’s set in 1911—an era that bewilders and, above all, bewitches me. Instead of Maria Theresa’s Vienna, the drama takes place in Hofmannsthal’s time. Plus, two incredibly attractive and gifted divas, Renée Fleming and Elīna Garanča, are harmonizing/romancing on stage—what is not to love?

So I “happened” to be in New York on the day of a performance of Der Rosenkavalier—how convenient, except that I didn’t manage to get a rush ticket on the day of. Precisely at noon I was sitting in the long corridor of European sculptures at the Met Museum, sighing to myself. But my moment of misery did not persist. Well what the heck, I’m gonna do it anyway.  It would be my “academic research,” as noble-sounding as it ought to be.

Actually I’m not kidding about the research part. Der Rosenkavalier is on my Orals list for a good reason—so I’ve got to see it, right? Good, that’s settled! I bought a ticket in the orchestra right, not too bad for a last-minute splurge. I spent a few hours in the afternoon wandering around the village, trying to do my left-over reading but really just soaking in the gloomy air of New York that is probably more eclectic than that in Boston.


The performance started at 7 pm, and not surprisingly, it was a full house. I arrived just in time to pick up my ticket and familiarize myself with the new surroundings. Anxiously, I could barely wait for the curtain to rise. It would be awesome, and I knew it already.

Unlike what I would call a second-rate libretto for Verdi’s Rigoletto, Hofmannsthal proves to be a true literary genius in his libretto for Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss is a lucky guy indeed—imagine how much worse he could have done! I’m almost equally interested in the staging and the text itself, well in addition to the music of course.

Already in the very beginning Hofmannsthal adroitly switches between formal and informal addresses to insinuate the swift change of mindset of the characters on stage. The opera opens with an intimate conversation in the bedroom with Octavian singing: “Wie du warst! Wie du bist!” to which Marschallin only responds with the third-person pronoun: “Beklagt Er sich über das, Quin-quin?” Marschallin’s deliberate withdrawal is reverted only upon her lover’s insistence: “Du, du – was heißt das »du«? Was »du und ich«? Hat denn das einen Sinn? Das sind Wörter, bloße Wörter, nicht? Du sag’!” This obsession with personal pronouns (darn it Europeans!) brings to mind Wagner’s Tristan, when Tristan and Isolde blend into one person, without the distinction between ich and du—”ohne Nennen, / ohne Trennen.” But Der Rosenkavalier is not another Tristan. At the end of Marschallin’s lament for the passing of time in Act I, she sings her farewell “Oh, sei Er gut, Quinquin,” switching again back to the formal address and establishing almost a high wall between herself and Octavian. This immediate change coincides with Marschallin’s decision to send her lover away. Situating Der Rosenkavalier in the social historical context, particularly acute in this production, it can also be read as Hofmannsthal’s farewell to the aristocratic Vienna in which he grew up. At the end of Act I, Strauss’s music scored in the lightest of strings dies away, lamenting the passing of Vienna’s golden age. Almost paradoxically, Hofmannsthal soaks this comic opera in a tragic ambience, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbles on the threshold of the twentieth century. In this production, the tragic aura is perceptible throughout.

In Der Rosenkavalier, the clownish Baron Ochs is much ridiculed, but through him Hofmannsthal also manages to insert some of his own social commentaries which do not befit the noble characters. For instance in the middle of Act I the Baron exclaims: “Was es alles gibt in diesem Wien!” This ironic statement might as well come from Hofmannsthal himself, alluding not to Maria Theresa’s but to his own city—in this Vienna, a city mired in crises. In Act III, in Baron Ochs’s obscene dreams Vienna is pathologized in an almost Schnitzlerian way. And I must say, this new production captures it just right by revealing sexual intercourse behind the high-cultured wall art. It is what Dr. Schnitzler would have done if he were to write Baron Ochs into his own dream stories.

Different from many of his contemporary Viennese writers, in the libretto for Der Rosenkavalier Hofmannsthal does not shy away from eulogizing his upbringing in the temple of art—not ironically but quite sincerely. The oversaturated aesthetic-aristocratic tradition is deep in Hofmannsthal’s literary imagination, including Ein Brief—the language crisis of a fictional aristocrat who impersonates Hofmannsthal himself. If in Lord Chandos’s letter Hofmannsthal brings out the malady of Viennese society obliquely in the form of the Sprachkrise, what he reveals in the comic opera Der Rosenkavalier set in another time is the slipping away of his own Vienna. Carsen’s new production fully sets Hofmannsthal’s sense of crisis in motion.

Der Rosenkavalier, in some way, is an opera about time. It is not a coincidence that the leading soprano role of the opera, Marschallin, is called Marie Therese, a mother figure bearing the shadow of the real mother of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 1740s when the story is supposed to take place. Despite its comic vein, Hofmannsthal’s libretto is saturated with melancholy and nostalgia. Marschallin with her aging beauty is preoccupied with the passing of time, especially in front of her seventeen-year-old lover Octavian. At the end of Act I, she sings most touchingly to her Bub about time: “Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbares Ding. […] In den Gesichtern rieselt sie, im Spiegel da rieselt sie, in meinen Schläfen fließt sie. […] Manchmal hör’ ich sie fließen unaufhaltsam. Manchmal steh’ ich auf, mitten in der Nacht und lass’ die Uhren alle stehen.” It is so moving, and in my head I was picturing Marschallin stepping into the empty living room of her palace alone in the middle of the night, barefoot, counting the tick tock and feeling completely lost. Wow! That is how you could travel from the extreme comic to the extreme melancholic—just need an opera like this one.

It’s hard to believe that the exceptionally feminine detail of Marschallin’s aria came from the hand of a male writer in his late 30s. Hofmansthal at that time was witnessing the debilitation of Vienna’s aristocratic society, bidding farewell to an entire generation. The female protagonist Marschallin feels time slipping away from her fingers, and it would be impossible for the audience of Hofmannsthal’s time not to feel the same while hearing Marschallin sing “wie alles zerlauft zwischen den Fingern, alles sich auflöst, wonach wir greifen, alles zergeht, wie Dunst und Traum.”—like a misty dream, their world is also slipping away. It is even more heartbreaking to hear Fleming’s full-bodied voice in this scene, because she’s so embedded in Marschallin, a signature role she’s going to retire at the end of this season. For the audience, it is also saying farewell to a musical epoch. And rightfully, Mr. Weigle allowed the upper strings to tremble as if uttering a cry at the end of Act I. Such a beautiful gesture, and very elegantly executed indeed.

But this opera is not meant to be a heavy show for the audience. Hofmannsthal’s use of Austrian dialect in Octavian’s maid speech is ironic and funny, because it sounds absurd. The moment he switches back to High German you know that he is snapping out of that Schnitzlerian “süßes Mädel” character and revealing his true identity as a nobleman. The mind game in this opera is fascinating, because Octavian is portrayed by a mezzo-soprano, and “he” in turn is disguised as a woman in front of Baron Ochs. The theatricality of this scene is comic and—trust me—simply incredible. In Act II, Strauss in his most German self mocked the Viennese tradition by twisting a waltz (anachronistically though) into Baron Ochs’s ludicrous Liederl. Straussian irony, check!

In the story itself, Hofmannsthal weaves his irony into a fairytale and a non-existent tradition involving the silver rose. In Act II, after receiving the silver rose from Octavian, Sophie is entranced by both the rose and the beautiful Rosenkavalier in front of her. “Wie himmlische, nicht irdische, wie Rosen vom hochheiligen Paradies. Ist Ihm nicht auch?” For a moment, Sophie’s words almost bring back Mahler’s “Das himmlische Leben,” a view of heaven from the eyes of a boy. Interestingly, just as in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, Strauss uses a mezzo-soprano for the role of Octavian, also a Bub in the eyes of his older lover. When the engagement between Sophie and Baron Ochs is about to fall through in Act III, Marschallin still hopes to conceal the Baron’s scandalous debauchery in front of his distressed fiancée: “War eine wienerische Maskerad’ und weiter nichts.” In addition to ridiculing the decadent aristocrats’ in Habsburg Vienna, the Viennese masquerade may also point at an effort of masking Vienna’s reality with history itself, like the fake façade of the Ringstraße that Adolf Loos once attacked. Decadence and decay are unavoidable in the full ripeness depicted in Der Rosenkavalier. In the end, the older Marschallin and Faninal leave the stage to Octavian and Sophie. The young lovers’ duet end with the following words: “Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein, daß wir zwei beieinander sein, beieinand für alle Zeit und Ewigkeit!” The overly optimistic tone strikes a dark echo, because the fairytale of the Rosenkavalier is not one that lasts, rather, it is simply an illusion, like time that slips through Marschallin’s fingers, this world is coming to an end.


I was sitting there, being left completely dazed by the powerful and tear-inducing final trio. This is opera at its finest, which only comes out in a live performance like this one. The ending of Der Rosenkavalier, when almost everything vanishes on the sage, brought my thoughts back to Hofmannsthal’s das Gleitende again. How different it is to see this story taking place in Hofmannsthal’s time, at the looming of crisis, in a society of value vacuum, when the comic turns out to be more tragic than ever? Then at that moment it dawned on me, how poignant the message of art could be, for now and for always.

Opera Seduction

April 22nd Saturday | Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera | New York, NY

If you catch me right at the corner of Columbus & W 63 on Saturday night, I would be all exuberant and tell you what a fabulous performance I just saw.

To be honest, I was not too enthusiastic about watching Rigoletto at the Met, and even running the risk of sounding like a snob, I believe it belongs to those operas that are “too easy to watch.” And it is true, but in a positive sense. After watching Met’s new production of Tristan last fall, I tend to associate the Met with more challenging operas and even controversial productions. But tonight, with Verdi’s Rigoletto, I feel once again the seduction of opera itself that first allured me to its realm.

I got a ticket in the grand tier balance, but both the view and the sound are surprisingly excellent, not to mention that I have one empty seat on each side of me (also two in front of me), so I was lucky enough to have an unobstructed view of the stage. One fascinating aspect about going to the Met is the environment. Before the performance, I had a light dinner/dessert combo at a Parisian café in the nearby Columbus Circle and enjoyed the walk up Broadway. Turning on to W 63rd and beholding the majestic Lincoln Center plaza from across the street, I watched all the fancy people rushing into the Met. The fountain, yes, the icon of the Met, which appears in the opening credit of all the recorded performances of Met operas (and of course along with the name James Levine).


The people sitting on my left side appear to be the regular opera-goers. But there is also something slightly distasteful about that kind of people, if they also happen to be braggers. At least one of them is like that, and she says at one point, “the most *amazing* opera I saw was Carmen.” Oh lady, what an amateur (and you should imagine me rolling my eyes for 10 seconds). In any case, they are civil at least. I’m probably just being a jerk with my own prejudice. But there is also a very uncivil one among us, a man sitting in front of me and a few seats over. You know sometimes during a concert people would dig through their pockets for cough drops and open the very loud candy wrapper. Well, it is understandable if that would stop them from coughing and further disturbing the performance. But in Act II apparently that man is just eating something very loudly (and also talking to his lady friend). Ugh, how rude! Finally an usher comes to shut him up, thank god!

Despite that very ill-mannered man, I still had a great time. I have to say that not only Verdi’s music but also the staging itself is very seductive. Not wanting to spoil anything, I perhaps enjoyed Rigoletto more because of this more playful setting and the fluorescent stage (very Broadway-like). I’m also looking at the orchestra pit from time to time, and naturally I can’t resist the temptation to think about Mahler, who conducted here over a century ago, and all that he’s done to transform the modern opera-going experience. And if only Herr Mahler were conducting here tonight, he would probably throw a despicable glance at my very rude neighbor for disrupting such a marvelous performance.

The sound from the orchestra pit comes out quite remarkably, and there is obvious communication between the conductor and the singers. But too often the performance is “interrupted” by applauses. Perhaps that’s only my habit of not wanting to applaud after every song, but the conductor seems to be perfectly fine with it.

Every time I watch an Italian opera, I feel that my childhood dream to learn Italian is justified. It is such a musical language! Even though the libretto is not first-class writing, I want to let my “literary-scholar-wannabe” self go in front of such amazing music. However, my impulse as a comparatist is simply too strong (sorry, can’t help it!). I chose Italian and could also see the English subtitle one row ahead of me. The translation is terrible, I must say. It’s almost like a free adaptation, which is the reason for some unnecessary laughters. The libretto didn’t actually mean to say anything silly like that! Also there are relatively important parts left out in the translation. For example, in Act III, when Rigoletto is trying to deny that the victim is Gilda, my subtitle says “per Verona è in via,” but the English subtitle only says something like “she’s gone.” She is going to Verona, everybody! I know it sounds trivial, but she is heading to the city of doomed lovers, already foretelling her tragic ending.


Again, dragging myself back to the performance itself, I want to say that the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja is the real star tonight. The crowd-pleasing “La donna è mobile” got himself probably the longest applause during the performance. At that point in Act III, the seductiveness of Verdi’s score has also reached its peak. Rigoletto, portrayed by the Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, is also unforgettable. What strikes me in this production is the commonality of the Rigoletto character, not actually hunch-backed or goofy, there’s some commonality to his character instead of his usual absurdity. He’s more human and real, not a Shakespearean tragic hero but a perhaps overly loving father we all know. Especially on a shimmering stage, this Rigoletto is moving, truly.

The Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko sings Gilda, and I feel that her voice is perhaps too feeble for the role, too timid and too childlike. Only in the very last act does she pull out a great dying scene of Gilda, singing about heaven. At that point, I’m imagining “Das Himmlische Leben” in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, the heavenly life from the eyes of a little boy. Ms. Peretyatko sounds like that little boy (portrayed by a soprano in reality) in “Lassù in cielo , vicina alla madre.” And how different is Verdi’s dying heroine from Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San and Mimì! It is almost glorious and ironic, all but sorrowful.

The last time I came to the Met, I saw the mind-blowing Tristan. Comparing the Verdi to the Wagner, I realize how purely entertaining opera can be, reminding me of watching the operetta Die Fledermaus in Vienna a few years ago. Without the metaphysical burden, the music can really set your senses free. I really love it, and I love it especially because I don’t have to force myself into a Schopenhaurian digression in the midst of a 5-hour opera. Rigoletto is very easy to listen to. And what’s wrong with some pure entertainment, even without edification? In the third act, my ears also seem to have captured a Tristan “zu König Markes Land” moment. Am I delusional to think that Wagner stole that tune from Verdi?

Perhaps I am, but I blame Verdi’s music and this fabulous production of Rigoletto, an otherwise gloomy opera. How seductive it is!

Why Bruckner?

April 15th Saturday | Mitsuko Uchida, Andris Nelsons and BSO | Boston, MA

Finally it feels like spring in Boston, and I’m happy to venture out again for a treat at the BSO with Mozart and Bruckner. Well, maybe not the latter. I was a little skeptical about Bruckner, since our last (and only) encounter did not end on a high note (or mid note for that matter). But I think it’s time to give him another chance.

The first half of the program is delivered by the marvelous Mitsuko Uchida. I’m always amazed by her sartorial selection (more than by her artistry). She wears almost the same outfit every time: a gossamer-like cardigan/cover, and I’m curious where she goes shopping. The last time I saw her was exactly three years ago at Hertz Hall, a chilly spring evening in Berkeley. She played a late Schubert sonata in the first half and the whole 33 Diabelli Variations—what a woman! I sat on the stage, only 10 feet away from this skinny Japanese lady. As tiny as she is, her energy was formidable and kept me in constant suspense. Today, sitting on the second balcony, the farthest seat from stage I’ve ever gotten, I felt the energy attenuated partially by the program partially by the distance. But Uchida is amicable and whimsical to stir up the air in between. Mozart is her natural habitat.

During intermission I took a walk outside the Symphony Hall. It was windy and drizzly but not too cold. The weather in Boston puzzles me. They say tomorrow will get to 80 degrees, seriously? I looked across the street. In the distance the top of Prudential Center was in blue and yellow, ready for Patriots’ Day. I’m slowly feeling attached to this city as I’m about to leave for a year. I didn’t bring my coat, and it got chilly after a while. I went inside, and soon the lights started blinking—time to take my seat.

I needed that bit of fresh air, for the Bruckner.

Also three years ago, just three weeks before I witnessed Uchida’s tour de force, I heard Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony for the first time—coincidentally with the same conductor but a different orchestra. That early March day Andris Nelsons graciously stepped in for Franz Welser-Möst at the last minute (although regrettably having to cut Staud’s piece inspired by Bruno Schulz). That Sunday matinée Nelsons conducted Vienna Phil also in a Mozart/Bruckner program. Perhaps I was overly excited about the whole weekend, and towards the last day of Vienna Phil’s residency I was truly exhausted. God forbid, I fell asleep in the middle of Bruckner (and sitting only three rows from the stage). For the past two years I felt guilty. I thought it was all my fault for missing perhaps the best Bruckner 6 performed by the same orchestra that premiered it over a century ago (guess who conducted it then). At the talk given by Andris Nelsons at Harvard this past Tuesday, he mentioned that the BSO includes at least one Bruckner symphony every season. Maybe his music really is that good, and I’m a dummy.

But tonight when the BSO started Bruckner 6, a familiar drowsiness hit me. It wasn’t my fault. It was the music. If one can ask Mahler why a symphony must be like the world and contain everything, perhaps I could also ask Bruckner why a symphony has to be this boring. Not even Nelsons and his BSO could savage a piece as uninteresting as Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. Most of the time during the second half I was circulating the same questions in my head: “What the hell is this? Why do I have to listen to it? Would it be rude if I leave now?” and da capo. I was jealous of the guy sitting behind me in the first half, who decided to leave after finding out how long the Bruckner piece would be. Lucky you, Mister! Rarely do I find classical music insufferable. As “old-schooled” as I am, not even Berg or Boulez repulses me, because at least they are interesting. Bruckner is an exception, but at least I did not fall asleep this time. I tried my best to make this music as entertaining as possible by invoking my wildest imagination, but it was in vain. Everything just spreads out like a flee market on a Sunday afternoon, because by then you know all the good stuff is already gone.

Finally near the end (fourth movement? don’t remember, it’s all the same) something grabbed my ears. Wait a minute, did I just hear Tristan? That can’t be. This music must be so terrible that it made me hallucinate. But when the melody burst out again from the brass section, I knew I heard it for sure. It was not my wild imagination. And this realization almost cracked me up. I tried very hard to restrain my laughter. Yes, it is Tristan (at least that’s how my brain recognized it), and you can’t pretend it’s not there by hiding it behind the strings, Herr Bruckner!

Why Tristan? Well, for a huge Wagner fan like Bruckner himself, inserting the Sehnsuchtsmotiv in his symphony is the least he could do for his idol. Allegedly Bruckner met Wagner for the first time at the premiere of Tristan, so it shouldn’t be surprising to hear some quotations in Bruckner’s own symphonies (I think they are everywhere, you just need to keep an ear up). So there’s no reason even to hide your admiration, we know you love him.

But still, I fail to understand why Mahler is Bruckner’s adamant supporter. Maybe one day I’ll find out, but before then, I’ll definitely keep a distance from his music for a while until the right moment comes. It took me almost 10 years to fall in love with Mahler. I guess I’ll wait and give Bruckner another try when I’m 30 plus. Deal.

P. S. Herr Bruckner, my unsoliticited opinion is by no means an offense to you or your fans out there (plenty I’m sure). There must be some hidden treasures, but for the short-sighted me, you are just very hard to like.

Concert Program

Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466

Bruckner, Symphony No. 6 in A

A Sort of Beginning

March 18, Saturday | Bernard Haitink and BSO | Boston, MA


For my inaugural blog entry, I’m going to focus on the classic, and you can’t beat the “Haydn + Beethoven” combo. Coincidentally this is also the program for the concert I just came back from at the BSO. In fact, this is the first time I got to sit on the balcony, also very luckily in the center first row. Finally I was able to people-watch from above with a view of the orchestra level and the whole orchestra, especially the percussion dude sitting at the very back of the stage (hi there!). I’ve been a little perked up about today’s program, Haydn/Beethoven/Debussy with Bernard Haitink. Last season I heard Haitink’s Mahler 1 with the BSO (and Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the brilliant Murray Perahia). Having only relocated to Boston not for long, I was thrilled to hear Haitink’s Mahler live for the first time last spring. In my memory Haitink is most well known for his ultra-slow interpretation of the Adagietto from Mahler 5. With the Berlin Phil, Haitink managed to drag this piece out into a record-breaking 15-minute reverie. Oh my god it’s slow—but it has to be this slow! And hearing Haitink conduct one of my favorite Mahler movements—the Trauermarsch from the First—was a real treat. Anyhow, despite the remnants of Stella, I decided to trek to the other side of the Charles in the still apocalyptic-looking New England late March evening for a guaranteed delightful musical offering at the Symphony Hall.

Sitting a bit farther away from the stage than I’m used to, I felt that the sound didn’t come out as clearly for the Haydn symphony. I always have this impression that in comparison to symphonic pieces from later periods, Haydn’s symphonies tend to sound like chamber music. They were composed for a more private and intimate setting, definitely not the stage in a modern-day concert hall. It seems as if our ears are also more used to the “monstrosities” of Mahler  (probably because of his influence on Hollywood soundtracks), so when Haydn comes along, we’d find it rather tame and unexciting. Therefore, when I was listening to the Haydn No.60 tonight, I was also trying to rearrange the stage setting in my head, imagining what it would have sounded had I been inside the grand sitting room of an 18th-century aristocratic home. No, it didn’t work. The Haydn symphony was pleasant but somehow not evocative enough for my taste—maybe that’s why it’s called il distratto? Or more likely perhaps, my ears were just born for enjoying music from a different era.

Following Haydn was Debussy. The three “Nocturnes” got the impressionistic qualities like a Monet painting, and I was not wrong. The title might be borrowed from Whistler’s paintings, as the program notes suggested. Aha, that Whistler in the Fogg was actually one of my favorite paintings, which depicted a serene lake at night soaked in blue. A similar version is on display at the MFA, although much darker. Isn’t it fun to think intermedially and interdisciplinarily? I remember the Austrian writer Hermann Bahr once compared the old painter with the new one in moving towards abstraction and visual perception. Debussy’s “Nocturnes” reminded me of the psychological aspect of Impressionism in capturing the “truth of the feeling”—or whatever that means.

During the intermission I was reading a book review related to my next paper. I had a moment of thrill when I discovered the connection between the protagonist of Schnitzler’s 1908 novel The Road into the Open and Gustav Mahler. Obviously! If you don’t know already, my world kind of revolves around this man. I shall most certainly spare you from the excruciating details, but this “discovery” possessed my brain throughout the second half of the concert—Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony It’s actually been a long while since I last heard this piece performed in full. Tonight the BSO delivered their Beethoven 7 with determination and brilliance, and under Haitink’s baton, the first movement was so uplifting almost to the verge of transcendence. The eighty-eight year-old (!!) Dutch maestro really is one of the very last conductors from the “old world.” Looking at his elegant moves on the stage brought to mind the old-fashioned European pianists like Rubinstein and Michelangeli—well-balanced sentimentality and reason, neither a touch over nor a touch under, always perfectly-calculated sophistication and dignity. Different from the Haydn symphony in the first half, Beethoven 7 came out more vividly to my balcony seat. I believe Beethoven’s symphonies are a perfect fit for the modern symphony hall, and even more so after tonight’s concert. No theatricality goes unobserved here. As for the music itself, I was waiting avidly for the famous second (relatively slow) movement, but Haitink somehow reserved his urge to slow it down further to a tempo I was more familiar with, thus making the music macabre and less assertive. This is also where my Mahler fantasy encroached on the Beethoven in reality. Upon hearing the theme of the Allegretto I thought I was identifying the source of inspiration for the opening scene in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony Part 2. That is probably just my own fantasy, but I allowed myself to indulge in it a bit longer: what if Mahler really borrowed Beethoven’s famous ostinato and turned it into those eerie steps lost in the woods? After all, this A minor movement was meant to be a mournful dance, the steps of which were also wobbly-sounding and tentative, almost Dantesque. In this “epiphanic” moment, I thought I almost caught the Mahlerian tendency in Beethoven’s transition to his late style. And I knew I must be delirious. Yet my fantasy didn’t stop there. The dance-like rhythm of the Seventh was picked up also by Mahler, unmistakably. If Beethoven used dance as a rhythmic base for this piece, then Mahler’s ironic appropriation of Waltz in the Trio of his own Seventh, composed almost a century later, would turn out to be no grand invention after all. Already the Trio of Beethoven 7 was unstable, perhaps reflecting the composer’s own debilitating health at that time. I’d say the musical materials were coherent only to a certain extent, and at times they were on the edge of breaking into pieces—this fragmentary quality is definitely no stranger to Mahler’s symphonic writing.

In Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony another noticeable element was repetition. The third movement was neurotically rewinding itself, and the last movement, too, was repetitive and even more unstable than the previous one. Haitink did a marvelous job controlling the uncontrollable—the hysteria of a neurotic Beethoven, if I may. Haitink managed to keep both “allegro” and “brio” of the music with a touch of sarcasm. Premiered in 1813 for the celebration of the Congress of Vienna, this “later” Beethoven symphony  was meant to be anti-heroic and therefore ironic. As the music returned to the bright A major Haitink in all seriousness infused a sense of doubt into this militaristic and ceremonial “pomp and circumstance.” Haitink used the overly disciplined and speedy theme to turn Beethoven’s music into another extreme, making it unsettling and self-doubting. My brain wasn’t able to catch up with the fury of the last movement or to form a coherent opinion on the whole symphony at all before Haitink concluded the piece with utmost self-possession. It was well worth a standing ovation, I tell you. As for the rest of the night, I’ll sink back into my fantasy, perhaps in the old Schnitzlerian fashion: “How do you like this music, Herr Mahler?”

Concert Program:

Haydn, Symphony No.60 in C, “Il Distratto”

Debussy, “Nocturnes”

Beethoven, Symphony No.7 in A, Opus 92