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Roboto Mahler, Serial Number 002

Sean Scully, Wall of LightThree symphonies in the course of one long weekend constituted a sort of heaven for Mahlerians in the region: the 8th with the NSO, the 5th with Michael Stern and the University of Maryland School of Music Orchestra (part of the National Orchestral Institute’s summer program at the Clarice Smith Center), and of course Yuri Temirkanov’s farewell concert of the Mahler 2nd, coming full circle with the work that started his seven-year tenure with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It should have been the crowning of a week (I didn’t go hear the 5th which fell unto the Saturday the BSO played at Strathmore), and I had the highest hopes for Temirkanov’s performance, expecting pure fire, passion, and that raw, exciting take of Mahler that Russian conductors can produce. That was not, as it turned out, what we got Saturday night.

To say that the BSO and Temirkanov executed their second anything less than expertly would be a lie. The quality of the playing (getting the notes right, not missing entries, ensemble-work) was far more than just adequate; indeed: just short of exemplary. The crux lied somewhere else: no matter how much of an outburst and a forte-fortissimo they produced, the performance felt lifeless, dutiful to near comical effect, at best impressive but never even close to moving, much less thrilling. It brought that curiously uninvolved, unexcited feeling of watching porn after having had sex or visiting a Michelin-starred restaurant after just having eaten. For nearly its entire duration I felt as if separated from the orchestra by a giant glass wall, except I could hear them.

The entry of the first movement over plasticky violins – all at excruciatingly slow-sounding speed – brought cellos and basses with it that were crass rather than ominous. You could hear all the notes, little of the music. In contrast: the winds rising from behind were divine; very present yet with distance they were a delight. But heavy brass took over, humpy… and even the brutal effects, that dark fall into a short march, did not register with maximum effect. The lightness of the strings afterwards, that difference of plane on which they enter, was underplayed. Early climaxes puffed into thin air. Here, as for the remainder, there was a great detachment that made listening less involving than hearing a Mahler symphony on the radio.

After less than the Mahler-suggested five minutes break (though late-comers had the chance to enter, furthermore taking away atmosphere), the tired-looking Yuri Temirkanov ably moved his players through the Andante at a speed that was either fast with a slow pulse or slow with a fast pulse; confusing to the ears, either way. (The performance on Thursday seems to have gone better, according to Tim Smith; perhaps the Maestro was tired this Saturday?) In the third movement (In ruhig fliessender Bewegung) the brass showed its glorious side that they have attained over the last years, although at times the effect bordered on a blare-fest. The percussion (drums, in particular) offered one of the best crescendos I have heard; the fine-tuned Strathmore acoustic doing its part. The off-stage effects, especially in the last movement, were nicely done (save for one off trumpet).

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, A soul-stirring farewell program (Baltimore Sun, June 10)

Tim Page, Ending on a High Note (Washington Post, June 12)

Charles T. Downey, More Mahler at Strathmore (DCist, June 12)

James R. Oestreich, Mahler Symphony Brackets A Turmoil-Spotted Tenure (New York Times, June 13)
Only soloists and choirs did not match the technical level of excellence. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby had no low notes in the primordial Urlicht (where is Anna Larsson when you need her?); like her soprano colleague Janice Chandler-Eterné, she had no German to speak of but more vibrato than desirable. The choirs (Baltimore Choral Arts Society, Morgan State University Choir) entered with the same curious punctuated détaché as the orchestra in the first movement – but were muddled, on top of it. The chorister-by-chorister rising to their feet for the “Resurrection” part was overdone in its faux-dramatic way, exuding zero magic nonetheless. A haywire hearing aid and plenty of patrons leaving in the middle of the last movement furthermore undermined any sense of occasion that might or should have been. The half-rousing end (the bells lost amid the noise) was too little, too late to salvage the disappointingly neutral impression, that feeling of standing vis-à-vis de rien. The performance as a whole reminded of the anecdote where a Cortot student plays for the master and, upon finishing, sees Cortot sadly shake his head. “But I made no mistakes at all,” declaims the student, with curious surprise. To which Cortot is said to have responded “Son, it was one long mistake.”

One hopes for Temirkanov to be recharged and on fire when he opens next season with the Shostakovich 5th; this season finale for the BSO meanwhile will be conducted by the next Music Director, Marin Alsop, and will feature Joshua Bell in the Corigliano Violin Concerto, The Red Violin, from the film of the same name.