Encores and Curtain Calls

PVS offers climactic cinematic finale

‘Mozart and Mahler at the Movies’ set for May 18 at GHS

“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”

— Gustav Mahler

The year is 1960. Leonard Bernstein, in his radiant prime at 42 and having ascended to directorship of the New York Philharmonic, somehow finds time to pen one of musical theater’s most exquisite and compelling hybrids, falling somewhere between Broadway and opera — the classic “West Side Story” of 1961. Never one to rest on his laurels, America’s musical wunderkind is also inspired to create an as-yet-unexplored venue for the initiation of young people into the sometimes arcane world of classical music, his ‘Young People’s Concerts” of the late 1950s and early ’60s — a class act that, with few exceptions, has yet to be followed or equaled.

Lover and purveyor as he was, of the late-19th-century romantic composer Gustav Mahler, whose profile was far more obscure and whosee stock was considerably lower before Bernstein’s ardent proselytization of his art, Bernstein had the chutzpah to actually conceive of a young person’s concert devoted to familiarizing America’s youth with the oft-accused-as-inscrutable aesthetic of the volatile Austrian composer.

As is often the case with geniuses who have managed to impact the consciousness of ordinary mortals, Bernstein possessed the unique gift of being able to render even that which was abstruse and arcane into readily graspable concepts and sensibilitues: in other words, being both composer and conductor, he was ideally placed to take his listeners on a first-person tour inside the walls of great works of art; their intent, their inspiration, their construction and their extra-musical scenarios.

His skills in this latter category particularly admirable, he — quite accurately I personally believe — was able to channel himself into the ethos of the mind of the music’s creator at the time of its inception, as well as into the very dramatic narrative of the music itself, a venture which many another cautious conductor or musician would studiously avoid in the name of objectivity.

In other words, these more cautious souls were loath to put themselves out on the limb and daring to pretend fathom the mindset and/or heartset of the composer in question, much less be willing to put his professional net on the line to infer what that music and its composer might have been about.

But obviously, Bernstein’s rash endeavor succeeded in piquing the fascination of more than a few, both mature and very young, during the years in which his self-revelations were available to us; and many came to listen, to ponder and to embrace, either openly or covertly, Lenny’s luminous wisdom.

Of course, as might have been expected, there were the usual fusillades from aesthetic purists and self-proclaimed absolutists which asserted that there was categorically no way in which one human mind could ever even begin penetrate the inscrutable, ineluctable reality of another’s — particularly in the absence the ability to verify such claims due to composer’s unavailability.

Not so Lennie; he leaped in where wisemen feared to tread — and with hands and feet stretched wide; much as his almost balletic conducting, Maestro Bernstein’s human expression was full to the brim

And what was the piece that Leonard Bernstein chose for the his return to the Young People’s Concerts stage? Tubby the tuba? Peter and the Wolf? Cinderella? Even Beethoven’s pastoral Symphony?

No. Quite blithely, simply and without apologies, after bringing his young charges back to Carnegie Hall after the Philharmonic’s tour of several countries, Bernstein offers his kids a chunk of Gustav Mahler’s 4th sympony.

The maestro raises his baton, the bows, reeds and brass of the New York Philharmonic circa 1960 swarm to silent readiness, and come forth with a prancing flute tattoo, out of which comes a dancing, spinning spiral of clarinets underlit with sleighbells — a mysterious, promising strain that could easily put the child’s imagination in mind of Santa’s sleigh making its way through the winter twilight toward civilization from the frozen North.

But not for long; within a mere few seconds, this morphs into an almost classical ballet pas de deux, formal, elegant and decorous , perhaps a young ballerina; yet, only moments after this, the woodwinds begin coughing with some regularity while the flock of double basses make their best attempt to continue the dance, albeit with greater comic effect — a crew of overweight male dancers, possibly.

Soon the violins and violas rescue the dance from the basses — and the strings and horns find a way to dance happily together, the woodwinds still piping away on their repeat-notes, soon to be co-opted by the French horns, who pave the way for a very affectionate dialogue between the violins and the cellos, which seem to be enjoying each others’ endearments very much.

At the excerpt’s close, Bernstein bets not a person in Carnegie Hall knows who the composer of the work is — that is, unless they’ve peeked at their programs — which gives the secret away, for it is Mahler. Then — and this eloquently shows just how far Mahler, through the graces of his earthly emissary Bernstein, has risen on the international profile — Bernstein tells his kids:

“See ... Mahler isn’t one of those big popular names like Gershwin or Beethoven or Ravel, but he’s sure famous among music lovers. In fact, we’re playing an awful lot of Mahler here at the philharmonic, there’s one of his pieces on every program for the next two months — and the reason is that this year is his 100th birthday ... And I thought why shouldn’t you all be invited and celebrate with us?”

“Now there are some people, a lot of them, who say that Mahler was a very fine conductor ... but he wasn’t so hot as a composer. Some people say that Mahler’s own music sounds too much like all the composers he used to conduct, like Mozart and Schubert and Wagner ... and that he just remembered their music and imitated it when he wrote his own. They say that anyway, a conductor’s head is too full of everyone else’s music, so how can he write any original stuff of his own? Naturally, I don’t agree with these people at all. I think Mahler’s music is terrific, and very original too, and I’m sure you’ll agree when you hear it. But still, I admit it’s a problem to be both a conductor and a composer; there never seems to be enough time and energy to be both things. I ought to know, because I have the same problem myself. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so sympathetic to Mahler.I understand his problem; it’s like being two different men locked up in the same body — one is a conductor and the other is a composer — and they’re both one fellow called Mahler ... or Bernstein. It’s like being a double-man ... And the reason he was so miserable was exactly because of that battle that was always going on inside him ... In this very same symphony which is so happy and so delightful, every once in a while, you will hear this sad crying voice — the ‘other Mahler’s voice’ — as if his heart were breaking, right in the middle of all that happiness and gaiety.”

Thank you, good Lennie, for channeling for us the sweet/sad Gustav; so now do I channel you!

Pioneer Valley Symphony will present its final concert of the season, “Mozart and Mahler at the Movies,” on Saturday, May 18, at 7:30 p.m. at Greenfield High School.

The concert opens with Mozart’s renowned “Overture to the Marriage of Figaro”; the second Mozart work is “Vesperae solenne de confessore,” with soloists Diana McVey, soprano, Megan Roth, mezzo-soprano, Michael-Paul Krubitzer, tenor, and Paul Soper, baritone along with the Pioneer Valley Symphony Chorus — music heard in the film, “The Accompanist.”

Tickets to the concert are $20 Adult, $17 Senior/Student, and $6 for children. They are available online at PVSO.org, by calling 413-773-3664, or at the door on the evening of the performance.

Further information can be found at www.pvso.org

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at josephmarcello@verizon.net.

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