Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Date with Death . . . And the Cats Were Blowing!

A friend overheard some high school boys talking at the next table in a coffee shop on a recent Saturday morning.

“What’re you doin’ t’night?”

“I’m goin’ ‘o see Mahler.”

“Who’re they?”

(Maybe these were the guys with moussed up hair I saw in the restroom after the concert. They were talking about “Sledgehammer Dude,” the tall gray-haired percussionist who has spent his life doing the cool jobs in the orchestra, who calmly walked between the instrument stations behind the orchestra, thumbing through his many pages of score as he moved. For the famous “Strokes of Death” in the final movement, he would pick up an oversized mallet with a wooden handle maybe 5 feet long topped by a metal-looking cube larger than a human head. He would hold this mallet vertically, with both hands at the end of the handle, as if playing some Highlander game (except he was probably wearing underwear), and bring it crashing down onto some platform about the height of a table. The specifics of the mallet and table I can’t find anywhere online. I guess each orchestra has to just come up with its own system. Or maybe they can just go on “Mahler’s 6th Sledgehammer and Platforms.com.” I read somewhere that the original score simply calls for a sledgehammer to be struck against a reinforced portion of the floor. It makes a sharp “Bang” without the reverberation of a bass drum.

All musical samples in this post are stolen from my wonderful recording of Bernstein with the VPO. They are under 30 seconds long except for two which are noted. The following is one of the loudest, so you can adjust your volume by it for comfort. Some other samples will be incredibly soft, but that's part of the experience. Everything would sound best on headphones, but be sure you don't crank them too loudly!

You can hear the sledgehammer at the start of this clip, but really, the brasses are louder.

“That whole symphony,” the high schoolers in the bathroom were saying, “an adagio and everything, and all I can think about is the sledgehammer.”)

I wanted to go to the concert with Svetlana, but she had her own date with destiny in the form of some alt-indy-lesbo-punk thing. What can you do?

You feel awkward asking just anyone to go see Mahler. You never know who may have had a bad experience with him. Some folks' parents dragged them to the symphony when they were kids and they spent the whole time thinking, as best they could at that age, “WTF is all the fuss about?” Or worse, maybe, like one woman, they had a “friend” who punched them repeatedly one night because he had been depressed for two weeks after hearing this exact symphony, Mahler’s Sixth, performed live. Years after the punching, she had to steel herself to go see it for herself, and her commentary pretty much sums up all the negative lay-criticism of Mahler’s themes and overwrought presentation. Death, Life, Heroism . . . my therapist would call it "All or Nothing Thinking." Don’t say I’m not fair and balanced for providing this anti-Mahler link.

Then there’s Lewis Thomas’ famous essay about the nature of death in the nuclear age entitled Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth. Or this businessman who had nearly no musical training and was so deeply affected by a performance of Mahler's Second (humbly titled “Resurrection”) that he sought conductor training, met with many famous conductors, and eventually made a recording with himself leading the London Symphony.

Sheesh. What a bunch of morons these Mahlerians are. They should have just gone to Dorkfest.

In any case, you can see why an invitation to Mahler is a touchy subject. It’s not like saying, “You catch Dylan?” or “Dude -- Nightranger!”

So I went online, perused the seating charts, tried to remember what that concert hall looked like when I was there years ago, and sprang for a single expensive ticket.

I was almost late getting there. I have trouble with that part of that neighboring city, and while speeding on the interstate well over the limit, I was trying to punch in the quirky address in a way that the Garmin would accept. For some reason, it kept not recognizing it. So then I was trying to enter the name of the auditorium, trying to think of what permutations of “Memorial” and “Hall” would work, checking the dark road ahead and in the mirrors between reaching for each letter. Several miles later, the Garmin recognized the destination in time to direct me on a fairly quick route I would not have thought to take myself. Doing all that keypunching while driving, I just about ended my date with death prematurely. I wouldn’t have needed the expensive ticket after all.

I tossed my money at the parking attendant, blazed up through the spiraling parking deck, couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get my keys out of the ignition until I realized that I had not put it in park before shutting it off, ran to the wrong end of the performance complex, ran back to the correct end, got my ticket at Will Call, ran to the wrong entrance to the hall, ran to correct entrance to the hall, and was told that I probably could not go to the bathroom -- it would be a 22 minute wait before late seating if I didn’t make it. So I ran up to my lower balcony seat with a dry throat and wet bladder and had to ask half a row of rich old white folks who routinely occupy those seats to stand and let me get to my own plum single seat in their midst.

I had time to calm down before the music starrted. A former governor came out and started talking about how this would be the very last performance by our conductor laureate (who used to be the principal conductor) with the symphony. He said he used to hire the symphony to go on business recruiting trips with him, and it had helped bring a certain blah-blah impressive number of dollars into our state. This brought applause from the audience, and I had to agree that using the symphony in that fashion was an awfully good idea. I maybe would not have thought of it, even. A lesser leader would do the standard dog-and-pony-vinegar-Bar-B-Que show, maybe play Old Time music on a PA system. But no, bring the symphony, show those Texans or Conneticetians or whatever that we’re cosmopolitan down here, it’s okay to bring your glue factory and create 300 jobs. Don’t play Mahler on those trips -- play something like Beethoven or Tchaikovsky that everyone likes. Someone else’s Pastoral or Pathétique sixth, not Mahler’s ass-buster.

They went on lauding the outgoing conductor laureate, presented him with “tokens of their appreciation,” basically gushing landed-class love all over the stage, and I’m thinking, “Does anyone know what we’re in for?”

The governor and other speakers seemed oblivious. And surely, there were unsuspecting virgins in the audience as well, folks who had not known to bring their spray bottles, their slices of toast, their newpaper for covering their heads. It was like going back in time to early 1929 and hearing someone say they had just invested their fortune in blue-chip stock. You just wanted to shake them by the collar and say “My God man, do you know what you’re in for!”

Then the presentations and acceptances were over, the dignitaries left the stage, there was final tuning, and then the outgoing conductor laureate came back out, raised his baton, and lowered it.

It was like going back to an old house that has lived so long in memory, you can’t believe it’s real. There’s the corner of the kitchen where we kept the bag of navy beans which rotted, and eventually were thrown out. There’s that smell of natural gas which persisted though all pilot lights were burning, causing us to keep the kitchen window cracked. I used to live in that house with ShakeThatCat. It had grand white columns supporting the roof of the porch going around three sides, a frosted glass front door where the landlord had taught himself to do gold leafing, more columns in the interior foyer, tile-lined fireplaces, creaky hard wood floors. Leading upward from the foyer was a front stairway with three flights, a grand ascent to glass doors which would normally lead to a less private room, but which lead in this case to Shake’s bedroom. He kept the landing outside these doors packed with stuff, so nobody used these stairs. To get to the “front” of our apartment, one would walk along the creaky downstairs hall, past the two first floor apartments where chefs at prominent local restaurants lived, and climb a back stairway to a landing which had a door to our apartment’s living room, a second door to Shake’s room, and another door to the other upstairs apartment.

We lived there well over ten years ago, and I still have dreams of being home in the daytime in that house, as I often was in those days of under-employment. Sunlight would stream in and strike the white carpet of my bedroom floor, the only carpeted floor I knew of in the whole house, and be scattered about the walls, under the furniture, into the living room, chasing out the shadows, making the interior appear to glow from no discernible source. In dreams I leave our apartment and sneak into the creaky hall and find some other apartment I had not known of before, and go in. It’s also white-carpeted and sunny, and I am not supposed to be there, because it is someone else’s and they might come home. Once, maybe, it was mine, and it was empty, but I could not believe that I could afford such a place alone. Another time there was furniture, a dining room table with tall candlesticks, and I was famous, people were coming to meet me.

Several times I found an extensive glassed-in porch off the back of the house which had not been there before.

In reality, the landlord kept the thermostat in the upstairs hall locked in a box. The house was freezing. So, we would take ice packs from the freezer and put them on top of the thermostat box and make that dragon in the basement bark, make its hot breath blow, yes sir! I forget if the woman in the other upstairs apartment knew we were doing this, or noticed that her place, too, would sometimes heat up like a sauna.

I had not played my recording of Mahler’s Sixth, maybe, since I lived there. Still, I knew every turn and texture of pavement as it came, and it was amazing to see this work which normally existed only as a specific recording in my stereo speakers, exactly the same every time, be reanimated by our own symphony next door.

Here we have cowbells and other percussion (maybe celeste -- certainly the celeste appears later) for some of Mahler’s soft, ethereal effects

At the live performance, I was thinking that some things were being done better by our local orchestra than in my recording. In these transparent parts with interplay between various single instruments, much care was taken to stretch out phrases, to linger on final notes before tipping into the next phrase. But now, listening to these examples from my recording, I think they’re beautiful here too. This is a long, soft sample at about one minute.

Mahler really creates a sense of spaciousness with his large orchestra. In the next sample it’s done in two ways: with the contrast of blaring high brass and grumbling low, and also in rests where the orchestra shuts up to let its funk reverberate about the hall for an instant before moving on with more of it.

I know we’ve all heard a lot of loud orchestra music in our day, and we can become anesthetized to it. But seeing the end of the first movement live, seeing the conductor pushing the tempo, making all these cues, and the instruments making their layered entrances which easily could be mis-timed, it’s like watching some NASCAR driver press it down for his final lap, weaving among the other cars recklessly, and you’re like, “Buddy, don’t fall apart now.”

The orchestra nailed it at maybe a little higher speed than this recording, and in the hush that followed, that lasted while latecomers furtively took their seats, it seemed everyone was afraid to make a sound and be the one person in the room to fuck things up. But the woman next to me did suck in her breath and say “Whoa.” I looked at her and her husband and nodded. If I had known them better, I might have whispered, “This shit is tight!”

I was ready for the next movement to be the fast one, and was startled to hear them start the slow one. I don’t know why they switched these two.

12/7/07 Update: I just read that Mahler originally intended the fast movement to be second, as it is in my recording. It begins with a 3/4 time "march" that sounds a lot like parts of the 20 minute first movement which, when heard right after the first movement, gives a distinctive "here we go again" kind of feeling. I've always felt, that's like life. If its not one damn thing, it's two damn things. When it rains, it pours. Out of the jam and into the jelly -- or out of the closet and into the utility room, whichever you prefer. You get the idea. But then, during rehearsals for the first performance in Essen, Germany, in 1906, Mahler switched the order so that the slow movement is second, and the fast one is third, and the redundancy is concealed, so it's less like life. Which I guess means, it's more like death. Which is probably Mahler's point in the first place.

I think the slow movement of Mahler’s Sixth is his best slow movement in all his symphonies. In parts it is very mournful, but always with great tunefulness. Our symphony had much more opportunity here to stretch phrases more than this recording, as they had done in the first movement.

The fast movement lacked an element that my recording has. Mahler was a non-practicing Jew from Bohemia, and used a lot of folk styles in his symphonies. This riff in the woodwinds was played kind of squarely by our symphony, but on the recording, Bernstein knows how to work it

And let’s not forget Mahler’s kids playing in the sandbox!

Giving a modern-day reading to the final movement’s sledgehammer blows, they can perhaps be interpreted as trips to the doctor where one is reminded of one’s worsening condition.

But between the hammer blows, the final movement shows many moods of life: mysterious beginnings wherein we find the seeds of the orchestration used a generation later in Hollywood for dream and hypnosis sequences . . .

. . . troubled times . . .

. . . and as always with Germanic Romantic composers, some moment of triumph

The final movement doesn’t settle down much until right at the end, and by then, you think, this must be it. That condition the doctor has been warning us about has finally caught up to us and we’re languishing in our easy chair with nothing but our memories and the quiet chorale in the trombones and other low brass. Starting halfway through this two-minute sample, listen for a series of notes in the horns which crecsendo quietly from nowhere, then drop an octave once they are noticed. There are three of these octave drops, the third quietly resolving the cadence, closing things down, turning off the lights for the last time.

They’ve come for you. They are tapping at the door, they are pressing their faces at the window, and soon they’ll be inside. They’ll be patient. They’ll wait for you to wake up in your chair and look around, startled, and get your bearings. You can put on your slippers. They’ve got all day -- the outcome is the same anyway. As they lead you away, supporting you by the arms, it seems good enough, sad enough, to simply fade like this. But then the rest of the orchestra starts to move. Flutes, oboes, clarinets, violins, violas, trumpets, the rest of the horns are raised. It’s the violent killer, whom you had thought was ruled out in favor of this quieter end, rising from the floor, out of focus in the background, hobbling toward you. You’re not going to get off easy. There is a final scream, and someone in the audience to my right actually jumped. She was one of the virgins, I presume. Then all that’s left is one quiet pizzicato “thump.”


cr99ist03in said...

Thanks for stopping by and the great compliments!

Cathelou said...

I really like to imagine the Highlander was not actually wearing underwear.

Hoolia said...

Oh how well I remember that apartment, Ben. My car got stolen from in front of it! You starred with Jeanna in one of my videos on location there. As I sit here, I can still smell those pilot lights.... Gosh, the good ole days.....