Mahler 5, New World Orchestra, and Michael Tilson Thomas

In a previous post I talked about Mahler’s Symphony Nº 5 (click here for that post). Well, I recently experienced it -one experiences more than listens to Mahler.

It had been about four years since I saw Mahler 5 at the Naples Philharmonic. I had also lived it with the great Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra years ago, but this was a whole other level:

The occasion was Michael Tilson Thomas “retirement” concert by his own New World Symphony. Now, some explanations:

Michael Tilson Thomas is a prodigy musician, Mahler savant, who founded the New World Symphony Orchestra in Miami in 1987. He is just one of those visionary geniuses who overflow with talent. He conducted the whole symphony without the sheet music. In fact, his notebook was closed on his stand the whole time in a show of “I have the music, but I do not need it” it was hugely impressive to have around 68 minutes of music for many, many instruments memorized.

The New World Symphony is a place for brilliant young musicians to do a three or four-year fellowship performing lesser-known works, more adventurous programing, and just out there stuff, just do not call it Avant Garde!! This is an orchestra with personality. Every musician is an accomplished and talented artist who is not afraid to make his or her voice heard, it makes a massive difference when you listen to them.

As for Mahler 5, this is the most “Mahlerian” of his works. As I said before, one feels the whole spectrum of emotions on this symphony: from the funeral march that opens, the Adagietto which is arguably one of the loveliest love songs ever, victorious scherzos… it is a roller coaster of emotions.

Well, my dear friend and old student Bill invited me to Michael Tilson Thomas’ farewell concert featuring Gil Shaham playing Joseph Boulogne Concerto n. 9 in G major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 8 (c. 1775) as an appetizer and then Mahler 5…

As an added bonus, another one of my old students, Margeaux was there playing the violin!! I had not seen her since she graduated high school twelve years ago. I caught up with her at the artists’ exit and managed to say hi and get a picture with her!!

What an amazing experience to see Mahler 5 with Michael Tilson Thomas and his New World Symphony, and with one of my old students in the orchestra! Memorable.

Joseph Roth and Gustav Mahler, brothers separated at birth??

My car is an old VW Golf, it still has a CD player! Not a fancy multi-disk unit, just a single CD at-a-time thing. So I put in a CD and it stays there for months, it is all I listen to. This has been going on for years: Bach’s Goldberg Variations (of course the original Gould recording), Van Morrison’s Born to Sing, no Plan B, the Tous le Matins du Monde soundtrack (which I found in a literal mountain of CDs being sold by some very trashy looking folks in Vermont, which leads me to believe that a, it was stolen or found, or b, I am a bad person who stereotypes people by their looks), Mozart’s Requiem… you get the idea. Well for months I have only listened to Mahler’s symphony No. 5.

Joseph Roth was a turn of the 20th Century German writer. I have read Job, The Story of a Simple Man twice, in 2003 and 2018, The Collected Stories in 2006, and I just finished The Radetzky March.

As I read the book and listened to Mahler, I realized how extraordinarily similar they are in their art. Both artists manage to convey the full spectrum of feelings in a single work, in my example: The Radetzky March and the Symphony No. 5 which is not even considered Mahler’s best work. Of course, his best symphony is a highly debated topic (I would go with No. 2).

This capacity to transmit feelings got me thinking about their similarities, there are a few:

Both lived around the same time Roth 1894 – 1939 and Mahler 1860 – 1911.

Both were Jewish (although Mahler became a Catholic so he could continue working…)

Both lived in Vienna at the turn of the century –although not at the same time- and attended the same university, although neither was originally even Austrian (Mahler was Bohemian, modern day Czech Republic and Roth from Galicia, modern day Poland and Ukraine) but both were in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is critical since both artists reflect the fall of the empire in their work.

Of course, at the end of the day each artist’s capacity to make the receptor of the art feel something is based on his or her craft and abilities. But let’s just say that reading and listening (not at the same time) I was transported from happiness to sadness, from victory to defeat, from walking in a field in Spring to avoiding enemy fire. Thank you Mahler and Roth.

Here is the Third movement from Mahler 5. It is directed by my dear friend and old colleague Benjamin Zander, a Mahler scholar!!

Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach

My only music post on this blog was published in 2014 about Van Morrison. Well, it is time to add to that. Basically the only thing I listen to nowadays is Bach, as in Johann Sebastian Bach.

Of course we are all familiar more or less with his oeuvre, but I must confess that my first conscious contact with Bach was quite late. After college I got a job in Boston’s Financial District. I moved into an tiny attic apartment on Commonwealth Ave.  in the Back Bay. Walking around I found out that Emmanuel Church on Newbury st. performed the Bach Cantatas on Sundays’ mass, so I started going religiously (sorry, bad pun). I missed the Catholic ritual, but the music more than made up for it!

Fast forward to 2013 in North Carolina when I saw András Schiff  perform the Goldberg Variations and it all came flooding back, and I was hooked. As soon as I could I went to the used record store and got Glenn Gould’s original 1955 recording -yes, the one where you can hear Gould humming the tune in the background! I stuck it in my car’s CD player and it stayed there until the car was sold in 2018. That’s five years of listening to the record over and over. Call me obsessive if you want.

The next step for me was the Cello suites. The progression was simple, although it involved a step back. A step back because I had been surrounded by these pieces when I worked at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, eventually observing and participating in Über-conductor Benjamin Zander’s Master Classes at the school. Now I have Yo-Yo Ma’s 2015 Royal Albert Hall performance of the complete Cello Suites on a loop (see video below).

Occasionally, if I want to mix it up a bit I might listen to some of his organ music or, the Passions, or some of his other orchestral and chamber pieces (sonatas and partitas). There are many of these because back in the day (1685 – 1750) the only serious musicians worked for the king or the church. Bach falls in the latter, so he had to produce music basically for every Sunday! In case you had not noticed, I am not a musician -much to my regret- but this music has everything I need musically and spiritually speaking.

You are welcome.