Saturday, January 2, 2010

Great Firsts

This is how karma works.

The best gift I received this past Christmas season was from my wife. Jennifer gave me a new recording of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, “Titan”. I have several other performances of this magnificent symphony in my collection, but this one was particularly special for a variety of reasons.

What makes a gift so special? Is it the thoughtful giving or the appreciative receiving? This Christmas, my best gift was one that moved beyond the simple joys of the exchange. The gift immediately inspired other experiences and broadened into this shared connection of a broader gratitude.

Jennifer and I listened to this rather historic performance and were both pleased. It led to a discussion about the symphony itself. I played my copy of Benjamin Zander’s excellent lecture on Mahler’s First which added depth and numerous specific guideposts by which to appreciate the symphony’s intricate, complex, development.

This, in turn, led to a discussion about other great first symphonies. We listened to several others in the days after Christmas. Taking time to enjoy the leisure of the season, to stop whatever we were doing, sip hot drinks, and enjoy the artistic brilliance of other great composers in their inaugural attempts at the pure symphonic form.

Before returning to Mahler, let me run through some other first symphonies that have caught my ear over the years and seem to me to rise to the highest level of musical competence.

Jennifer and I shared two other first symphonies after being enthused by the Mahler performance. Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1 was composed in 1936. It was revised in 1944. This work, like much of Barber’s compositions, is both distinctly modern and distinctly romantic. It is composed of the classic four-section style yet contained in a single movement that lasts a bit under 22 minutes. It possesses a superb development of musical ideas, which is essential to the artistic merit of any true symphony. There are frequent moments of terrific, balanced interplay between the strings and horns. Though not as famous as Barber’s brilliant Piano Concerto and his Adagio of Strings, Barber’s First certainly is an aesthetic and intellectual masterpiece.

The other first symphony Jennifer and I shared as a result of her gift was Dmitri Shostakovich’s, composed as a graduation piece in 1925 when Shostakovich was only 19. Obviously influenced by both the work of Mahler and Tchaikovsky (among others) the work nevertheless is not just an exercise in various studied styles, it has a distinctive voice of its own which would continue to develop throughout his life to make Shostakovich so at home and recognizable in the repertoire. I especially enjoy the way he incorporates the use of a piano to help accentuate the work at certain moments, particularly in the second movement. Moments of humor, tenderness, rage, pomp and that unique Russian cultural conception of fate are all present throughout the work building to a triumphant finale so common with first symphony efforts – the composers usually being young and full of life and hope. In Shostakovich’s case, few of his 15 symphonies would match his First in its underlying optimism.

Preceding Shostakovich historically was the brilliant composer P. I. Tchaikovsky who’s Symphony No. 1 was completed in 1866. Appropriately, for this time of year, this symphony is subtitled “Winter Daydreams”. Cold weather makes me think of Tchaikovsky and, as it happens, I was already listening to his entire cycle of symphonies while at work through December. Listening to his First a few weeks ago, I had forgotten how rich and fulfilling it is, immediately showing Tchaikovsky’s comfortable mastery of orchestration. Tchaikovsky himself considered it paradoxically an “immature” work, yet “with more substance” than many of his other symphonies. Like Mahler's, Tchaikovsky’s First was a huge labor to produce. It did not come easily. But, the end result is something that sounds to my amateurish abilities as very mature, in that the work not only communicates and develops a coherent collection of themes but does so with the splendid use of every aspect of the orchestra. Tchaikovsky displays competence and artistic merit throughout his “daydream” which makes it a perfect musical experience for any winter afternoon.

Johannes Brahms rounds out the “honorable mentions” for my Great First Symphonies. No one in this post struggled more to complete his First than did Brahms. He began sketching it in 1854 and did not complete it until 1876. Brahms’ First begins boldly, confidently, alternating between harmonic orchestral bursts and periods of wonderful, delicate woodwind textures. Many critics dubbed this First as “Beethoven’s Tenth” when it was first performed, indicating the tendency among some to equate Brahms as the proper successor to Beethoven’s near-peerless career. Such a distinction also indicates something of this First’s sweeping complexity while remaining firmly entrenched in the romantic catalog. Brahms juxtaposition of horns and strings in the final movement is particularly noteworthy.

But, for all their splendor, the remarkable Firsts of Barber, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms, cannot match the towering brilliance of Mahler’s First. Initially, composed in between 1884 and 1888, the symphony was not favorably received. Few knew how to appreciate such a composition; it contained so many strange elements. The work began as a “symphonic poem” and its earlier versions reflected this. But, as Mahler continued to refine it – tinkering with it up to 1894 – it took on more of a traditional symphonic development though it still remained inaccessible to much of the audience. This was largely because it was so far ahead of its time.

Today, Mahler’s First is considered standard orchestral fare, though it retains the distinction of being a rather robust, difficult composition demanding the complete attention of the audience to fully appreciate. It is to be only attempted by the most accomplished musicians and conductors. For that reason, Mahler’s First is one of the mileposts by which only the best conductors stake their claims to greatness.

Now, back to Jennifer’s gift and how it fits into all this.

As loyal readers know, I am captivated by the modern compositions and conducting abilities of Esa-Pekka Salonen (see May 17 post). Jennifer is, of course, aware of this. Back in the summer we discussed Salonen leaving the Los Angeles Philharmonic and even toyed with the idea of going to LA in December to hear John Adams conduct the Philharmonic in a performance of Adams’ brilliant The Dharma at Big Sur in the Walt Disney Hall. But, in the end, our schedules did not permit such an extravagance.

So, this was all on Jennifer’s mind when we met with some of our Atlanta friends for dinner back in the fall. Our friend Eileen is a good violinist in a small, civic orchestra. This is a hobby of hers (she is a real estate attorney by trade) so naturally music is often a topic of conversation. Jennifer was discussing the John Adams piece with her when the subject of the LA Philharmonic getting a new conductor came up. I was elsewhere at that particular moment of our gathering so I knew nothing of what Eileen related but for a reference to this conversation Jennifer made on the drive home from that party. Unbeknownst to me, however, a Christmas gift idea was being hatched.

It turns out that Salonen’s replacement is a youngster of international renown from Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel. I thought nothing more about Dedamel until Jennifer gave me his inaugural concert performance with the LA Philharmonic, a concert recorded at Disney Hall on October 8, 2009. The performance, if not the best ever of this First, is certainly competent and enthusiastic. You can sense the energy Dudamel inspired with his reportedly animated style of conducting (not unlike Mahler himself back in the day) by the explosive applause at the conclusion of the magnificent symphony. I plan to order the DVD of the performance so we can watch Dudamel’s conducting style and hear the performance in a DVD quality which is often noticeably better than regular CD.

I have no doubt that Dudamel, already known world-wide and only in his late-twenties, chose Mahler’s First with absolute intent. There is no better symphony by which to proclaim youthful mastery to the classical world. It is, in fact, a rather arrogant choice, as if attempting to prove from the start that there are no barriers for this conductor. Dudamel, if not already great, undoubtedly has visions of self greatness as one of the premiere conductors of the young 21st century.

An exciting conductor, an outstanding First, an excellent orchestra fine-tuned by Salonen himself, impeccable acoustics, and an eager audience all combine to make this gift of Mahler so very special. Still, there are some who claim this twenty-something upstart is too "showy" and can’t possibly get everything out of Mahler than a more mature conductor could obtain. Did Dudamel live up to his audacious choice for beginning his conductorship?

Under Dudamel’s guidance, the critical, fragile first few minutes and last, strident four minutes of the first movement certainly hold my ear, the truly remarkable percussion is resonant in this recording. The fine dance of a second movement – one of the most difficult ones for early audience to accept as serious music – is spritely, earthly and rich with strings and brass horns nicely interplayed. This all gives way half through the movement to a light cadence of isolated winds and softer string sections before erupting into dance again when the strings answer the call of trumpets. Wonderful.

The percussion softly begins the third movement accompanied by first a cello and then a bassoon in a folk medley. The entire orchestra gradually joins in. There are variations on this until the orchestra gradually fades into a dying percussion. Two beats. Then comes the final movement cascading down upon us with great alarm. The recording is distinctive, you hear every element of the orchestra, the percussion again being clearly in evidence. Building higher and higher to a triumphant explosion of sound only mid-way through the long 20 minute movement. This is not really triumph at all. It is struggle. And so the struggle goes on for several minutes until Mahler again calls us into the triumphant, this time complete. The audience applauds passionately.

On New Year’s Eve I was off work and did some small chores en route to purchasing an extra champagne bottle for the night. I was listening to NPR’s Performance Today and heard them salute Gustavo Dudamel’s d├ębute with the LA Philharmonic as a musical highlight of 2009. They played the final movement from Titan, Dudamel’s (and Mahler’s) proclamation of optimistic greatness to the world.

Now, you see, I obviously did not plan to hear Mahler’s final movement to his first symphony conducted in the very performance that my wife had intimately given to me for Christmas. She broadened my world in a meaningful way and opened up this mutual couple of nights of symphonic music, is there a greater intimacy to give? Only in the music itself. I did not plan to hear it but it was played for me on my radio out on a gray afternoon doing small errands. But, I was so appreciative of how all these things came together in the mind’s eye of my gift.

For that I am abundantly appreciative.

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