Review: PostClassical Ensemble Performs Mahler’s 4th Symphony “A Wicked New Look”
And on Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, the PostClassical Ensemble performed “Mahler’s Fourth: A Wicked New Look,” a springtime revival of one of the Austrian composer’s most beloved works.
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With its vast pastoral landscapes brimming with harmonic color (and surely mined by icy winds of irony and uncertainty), it’s no surprise that Mahler’s music tends to bloom in the orchestra pits whenever the spring is coming. There is a freshness, lightness and vitality to his musical symphony, a grandeur that manages to be approachable and familiar, folksy even. Its hills, to borrow an expression, are alive.
For Wednesday’s performance, PostClassical has reduced these landscapes to a set of snow globes, offering a miniature Mahler suite — a program of various pieces arranged for a 14-piece chamber ensemble.
Musical director Angel Gil-Ordóñez offered his own arrangements of the Funeral March from Mahler’s Symphony No. recomposed to highlight guest David Taylor’s bass trombone.
These were followed by Klaus Simon’s exquisite 2007 chamber arrangement of Mahler’s 1901 Fourth Symphony, its swinging scherzo further altered by Gil-Ordóñez and postclassical executive producer Joseph Horowitz to make room for Taylor.
If the seemingly insistent inclusion of the bass trombone sounds odd – let alone iconoclast bass trombone personified by Taylor – let me tell you right now that it most certainly was. But Taylor’s unexpected contributions were also key to hearing the “bad news” part of the set’s audacious reimagining of Mahler.
Taylor, who has worked as comfortably with Leopold Stokowski and Pierre Boulez as he has with Duke Ellington and Thad Jones, enjoys a long and fruitful relationship with PostClassical. His 2011 re-reading of Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger” with the group has become a staple of his repertoire.
When Taylor emerged at the start of “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” via a low throaty growl, a wave of smiles and laughter rippled through the audience like a breeze across a meadow. One of the reasons for this reaction is that the bass trombone is the voice of a punchline: as delicate as it is, its sound is never very far from that of a baby pachyderm which has somehow introduced itself. another in the liquor cabinet.
It was wise to introduce Taylor’s very particular and particular approach to Mahler via the “Wayfarer” selection. Much like his adaptation of “Der Doppelgänger,” it provided a showcase of his control, an assurance of his emotional depth, and a demonstration of his ability to coax a rarely invoked raw sensibility from the bass trombone.
But unlike her engagement with Schubert’s darkness and beauty, Taylor’s exploration with Mahler seemed to want to bring forward her internal tensions, her psychological landscape, the pain within the archetype.
This was particularly the case in the symphony, where the second movement (a Mahlerian treatment of a traditional Ländler) was transformed by Gil-Ordóñez and Horowitz into “a concertino for bass trombone and chamber ensemble”.
“We call the resulting 12-minute concoction ‘Mahlerei,'” Horowitz wrote in his program notes.
Simon’s reduction of the symphony does a marvelous job of highlighting the tensions at work in Mahler: notably the internal push and pull of the composer’s identity as an assimilated Jew within the artistically rich culture and deeply anti-Semitic of Vienna at the time.
When it premiered in 1901 in Munich, it was not the interjection of a trombone but the easily perceptible Jewish inflection of Mahler’s music that inspired laughter (as well as hearty boos) from the audience. Struggling with his own enjoyment of the music, self-identified anti-Semitic critic William Ritter wrote of the premiere that “what blindsided us was how it went from the sublime to the ridiculous.”
What perhaps shocked listeners even more at the time was Mahler’s continued play with themes throughout the movements – an approach to reworking melodies and riffing on ideas that seemed to presage jazz more than paying homage to the classic variation. Against this backdrop, Taylor sounded oddly at home in the music, grounding her the back of her hand.
Taylor’s presence seemed to allow for a slight relaxation of intonation overall—here a slight tension between the two violins, there a certain scratch on the French horn. But his loose sound also cultivates an air of forgiveness, a tolerance for imperfection that only amplifies the humanity of the music, while attenuating the distance that can sometimes be felt in the foothills of the Fourth.
At times, the rift between Taylor and the ensemble became precarious, a jam gone wrong. This is partly due to the extreme delicacy of PostClassical in its management of Simon’s arrangements. Taylor’s entry into the scherzo was nimble but incredibly wobbly, in the sense of the melody – a hippopotamus on ice skates.
But Gil-Ordóñez worked hard to lather the set around Taylor’s unruly sound column. He put fat on the bones of the movement’s various melodies, letting them bend under their unusual weight. Chills of mourning shook key lines as the ensemble struggled (often magnificently!) to empathize. Toward the end of the move, Taylor rushed to the back of the stage, taking his floor-scratching bass with him in a slow, moderate breath. He finally snuck offstage through a side door, still playing, and an infectious laugh from across the room brought the move to a close.
If the idea of Taylor’s performance was to properly fill in the gaps in Mahler’s musical outlook, it might not have done the job – but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the point. If it were to suggest the possibility that in the heart of the sweetest nostalgia rumbles a bitter alienation, mission accomplished. Otherwise, it was a weird and oddly satisfying experience, one whose mind cast dramatic shadows over subsequent moves.
The finale of the Fourth was particularly striking, its soprano part sung by 16-year-old Annalize Ross, a Washington National Cathedral chorister who stepped in at the last minute for fellow chorister Madeleine Murnick, who was unable to perform.
The movement – a luminous revelation in celestial pleasures – is to be sung, according to Mahler’s instructions, “with childishly cheerful expression” and “absolutely without parody”. He got what he asked for from Ross, whose voice – vaporous and clear, always finding its form – perfectly matched the spirit of this often haunting arrangement: it was beautiful, it wasn’t complete, it wasn’t complete. was perhaps never perfect – all the more reason to listen more carefully.