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8.8.16

At Tanglewood: A Young Conductor's Marvelous Mahler


Moritz Gnann debuts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, August 7, 2016 (photo by Hilary Scott)

One thing is certain when you hear a world-class orchestra in concerts back to back to back with different conductors on the podium: you can hear when the players and the conductor are especially motivated to make music, as opposed to getting through a work. That was the case this weekend at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s bucolic summer home. Performances earlier in the weekend were executed with precision, but were not memorable. That changed Sunday afternoon when Moritz Gnann, the orchestra’s assistant conductor, took the podium. Although not unknown to the orchestra, he had never led it in a public performance.

Gnann’s first BSO effort as a collaborator showed promise. An experienced opera conductor, the lanky German followed Nelson Freire nicely in Mozart’s ninth piano concerto number, K. 271. The 71-year-old Brazilian’s playing was stiff at times, although he cemented his reputation for avoiding overt showmanship. Pianist, orchestra, and conductor were at their best in the operatic middle movement. Freire took the role of singer, playing lightly, with the modest orchestra — strings joined by oboes and horns — never overpowering him. The third movement, marked Presto, begins with the solo piano. Freire’s tempo was brisk indeed, maybe a bit too fast as his technique was a touch muddy at times.

The concluding work, Mahler’s youthful first symphony, was where Gnann’s interpretative talents and energy shone. It was also apparent that he has been influenced by one of his mentors, Andris Nelsons, the orchestra’s music director, whom he has assisted since 2010, beginning with Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival. From the first bars, where Gnann had urged the orchestra in rehearsal the day before to play the opening dominant A pitch as softly as possible, there was promise that this performance might be special. It was that and more.

Gnann had complete control over the shape and color of the opening movement, the softness of the A helping to evoke the quiet of the forest, which Mahler augmented with bird calls, offstage trumpet fanfares, and horn melodies. That the concert venue, the Koussevitsky Music Shed, essentially is located in a semi-cleared forest made Mahler’s music seem that much more appropriate. As the work progressed, Gnann’s attention to detail became apparent. He masterfully weaved the threads of Mahler’s music, allowing parts rarely heard clearly, such as those from the harp and bass drum, albeit played softly, to contribute to the sonority.


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Andrew Pincus, BSO: Into the harmony machine (Berkshire Eagle, August 8)
Gnann’s tempi were on the slow side, reminiscent of, but not quite as slow as those Otto Klemperer used when conducting Mahler. A slightly slower Mahler allowed Gnann to bring out the layered nature of the music. Indeed, Mahler urges the first movement to be “slow” and “dragging” (Langsam. Schleppend) and the second to have “powerful motion, but not too fast.” Movement two begins with a peasant-like Austrian Ländler. A trio in F follows it. In a lifetime of listening to Mahler performances, I’ve never heard it played more beautifully or sound more Austrian.

After the well-controlled third movement, featuring Frère Jacques in a minor key, Gnann led a final movement that was filled with tempestuous passion, and yet individual parts still were audible. The final climax called for the brass players to deplete their reserves, playing as loudly as they could. They did so in tune and, believe or not, with beauty. It was a moment of white heat. That the conductor and players had modulated their sound beautifully throughout the work made the final, boisterous climax much more effective. It was a fantastic ending to a rousing performance and the audience recalled the young conductor to the stage thrice. Gnann is an animated conductor and he was spent by the symphony's end, as were his players. It was a triumphant exhaustion that reminded one of Mahler's assessment that a symphony "must be like the world. It must embrace everything." For nearly one hour at Tanglewood, it did.

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