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An Evening of Giants: Mahler, Barenboim, and the CSO

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Graces Symphony Hall with a Memorable Mahler’s ‘Seventh’

By Jeremy Baskin

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Symphony Hall

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Boston’s classical music community was given a treat last Wednesday, as Daniel Barenboim brought the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) into Beantown for the latest installment of the FleetBoston Celebrity Series. Though we Bostonians can boast about hosting one of the so-called “Big Five” orchestras, those “who know” know that a world of difference separates Chicago’s orchestra from our BSO; furthermore, the Chicago Symphony is arguably at its best when it plays the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.

Their Boston performance featured Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, a monumental five-movement work that exceeds 80 minutes and fills an entire program all by itself, independent of an encore.

This is often referred to as being the least popular of Mahler’s symphonies, but such descriptions should be taken with a grain of salt. First, it is fair to say that all of Mahler’s symphonies are very popular with the concert-going public, compared to other works that today’s orchestras play. Second, the complexity and amount of strife heard in the Seventh Symphony exceeds that heard in most of his other symphonies. That the Seventh is less listenable than other Mahler symphonies doesn’t relegate it to any lower status. And finally, even the supposed runt of Mahler’s litter is still a giant compared to most other works.

The performance began with a somewhat pompous solo by the tenor horn, an obscure brass instrument which sounds like an extremely dilated French horn and looks like it came straight out of the movie, “Honey, I shrunk the tuba.” As the 22-minute movement continued from one theme to another -- with very few attempts on the part of the composer to link the themes together -- it became apparent that Mahler’s prime goal is simply to get distracted. The orchestra and audience both start at “point A” and finish at “point B,” but the beauty is that the path of least resistance is not taken.

The highly programmatic nature of Mahler’s music is evoked in the second movement as well, with snare drums and intentionally out-of-rhythm orchestral bells aiming to sound not simply like their own instruments but perhaps an army and cowbells, respectively.

Mahler makes great use of the large orchestra his music calls for, too; in addition to the workout that the brass section gets, he brings back themes in different sections. You’d think that with all of Mahler’s emphasis on the French horn, that the cellos -- instruments with a similar range as the horn -- wouldn’t get the melody as much, but that isn’t the case. And it’s a good thing, too, since the CSO cello section sounded marvelous, with ten players sounding like 15 or 20. The musical doubt that the violins expressed in the fluctuating between major and minor chords was pulled off excellently, as well.

A scherzo followed, with the opening notes in the timpani and the lower strings -- an ominously repeated ascending minor second -- sounding remarkably similar to the famous passage from the score to the movie Jaws. Perhaps John Williams got his inspiration from Mahler, the ultimate programmatic composer.

An aside on the nature of scherzos in symphonies is in order here. It is interesting to compare the scherzos in the seventh symphonies of two great masters, Beethoven and Mahler. While the scherzo of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony essentially invented the genre -- full of intensity and rhythmic drive, rhythmic instability reigns in the scherzo of Mahler’s Seventh symphony.

The most peaceful movement of the symphony followed, called “Nachtmusik.” As if 90 orchestral instruments don’t offer enough diversity for Mahler, he felt compelled to call on the guitar and the mandolin to provide the mood for this movement. Two beautifully played solos were heard, and the contrast between them couldn’t have been more striking. The percussive mandolin introduced the theme of the movement, marked “Andante amoroso,” (walking in a loving manner), and the violin -- played so mellifluously by concertmaster Robert Chen -- presented an equally beautiful offering later on in the movement.

All the repose in the world offered by the fourth movement is not enough for the insanity of the final movement, a rondo, marked “Allegro Ordinario.” There is nothing ordinary about this movement, though, with new musical ideas being literally plopped on top of others. Mahler shows no allegiance to a key or rhythmic pattern; in other words, this rondo is a Frankenstein of a movement, with 15 or so little unrelated musical ideas stitched together. Put another way, Mahler has cooked up a vegetable stir-fry, only with some cottage cheese, chocolate chips, and gravel thrown in for good measure. It’s not that he doesn’t shove tonality in our faces -- which he does -- it’s simply that he doesn’t ever let us take a bite.

The bold but pristine sound of the CSO brass section opened the movement with a fanfare, which the program notes claimed was taken from the prelude to the first act of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. As the movement progressed, or rather regressed, into an infernal cacophony, the audience could not help but be impressed with the orchestra’s ability to move so well with the abrupt changes that the music offered.

Four curtain calls’ worth of applause and cheers directed towards Barenboim and his troops warranted an encore, and one was provided: the prelude to the third act of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, in order to offer a connection to the theme that Mahler borrowed from Wagner for the aforementioned fifth movement of his Seventh Symphony. In addition to the heavenly strings and yet again another beautiful cello section solo, this work featured a brass chorale, which the CSO brass -- 85 minutes of Mahler later -- nailed as if it were nothing more than a walk in the park.