Hello Patch Readers. I thought I would pass along my report to the Chicago Mahlerites on the performance Saturday evening the 7th of July of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing the 6th Symphony of Gustav Mahler at Ravinia under the leadership of Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden. Many of you may not know this music and there is some jargon in my post that aficionados of classical music and Mahler know but that are not general knowledge. Yet, I thought it would be of interest in a way that I sometimes read the chess column in the New York Times even though I can’t possibly understand why one move is a blunder and another move brilliant. I read just because of the passion of the writing on the subject and the news of who is doing well in the chess world. I added a few things in brackets  to the original post to clarify things. Unlike a chess game, you can actually download a recording of Mahler’s 6th Symphony and hear for yourself.
“I thought that I would report on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra M6 [Mahlerite jargon meaning the Mahler 6th Symphony] with guest conductor Jaap van Zweden last night (on Mahler’s Birthday) [July 7th] at the Ravinia Festival. For those of you who don’t know, the Ravinia Festival has the CSO play its orchestral concerts in an outdoor pavilion. There is a lot to be said against this for the overly (or perhaps just merely) fastidious music lover—cicadas, crying children, wind shaking the tree branches, as well as musicians with their “outdoor” instruments perhaps playing more for pay than glory. (And then there is a fact, well noted by Beecham, that there is a train station about 200 yards away from the stage.) [Witty British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham who said that “Ravinia is the only train station in the world with its own orchestra.”] Yet, none of this mattered last night.
“The atmosphere was almost literally “electric.” Actually, it was one of those special meteorological evenings where the baking heat of the day was dissipated by a wonderful cool front which made our flesh expect a thunderstorm, but just get an excited breeze instead. (The violin page turns held an unusual dangerous element as the musicians had to get large clips over the music to keep it from blowing.)
“Van Zweden seems tall and has crazed stork movements and a constant beat with an angularity that reminds one of Solti. [Sir George Solti the long-time music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who died in 1997] And the CSO played for him with all the attention, power, accuracy, and beauty of tone that they would have for Solti—perhaps with more beauty than he would have elicited. This was an overwhelming experience.
“The first movement opened briskly with the marching theme vigorous but not done as disgustingly raw as the Slatkin/CSO performance of several years ago. [Leonard Slatkin has been a guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony.] The overall timing was about 22:30 with the exposition repeat. The “Alma” theme was luxurious at its first appearance and was subject to the most loving rubato at the recap. [Alma was the famous, flirtatious “Bride of the Wind” wife of Gustav Mahler who said that the passionate theme in the first movement was supposed to represent her.] The middle development section had both excitement and a blissful peace with the cowbells in the distance—I was sitting just into the left audience section at the very front by the first violins. And because the celesta was just stage right of them, I got a lot of celesta sound throughout the evening. The final music of the coda was taken as about as briskly as I can remember hearing it.
“Van Zweden played the Scherzo second, as his mentor, Haitink, does. [There has been a tradition of performing the Scherzo second, but most scholars now believe that Mahler wanted the Scherzo played third—it’s a conductor’s choice. Bernard Haitink is another Dutch conductor who was recently Principal Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.] The tempo was brisk at a timing of 12 minutes. The opening timpani blows held a pleasing metric logic to what we had just heard. While the first movement seemed to have inner human emotions as the key, this piece was more the motion of things and people—dancing, running--dodging objects and each other. The irregularities of the rhythms and phrasing, as forcefully played by the CSO, positively induced vertigo—without the queasiness.
“The Andante was lovingly beautiful--even with the cicadas making their first choral entrance of the evening. Dale Clevenger’s horn solos were masterful. He celebrated his 72nd birthday this past week, and several Chicago critics have been ready to put him out to pasture--if not guillotine him--for recent erratic playing, but he sounded fine in this. A last hurrah? (For a piece that requires 8 horns, it was all hands on deck. After Clevenger, the horn section, in toto, got the next bow at the end.) The timing of this movement was about 14:30.
“The Finale of the 6th is one of those terrifying creations whose emergence from mere introductions, fanfares, chorales, canons—basic chords and counterpoint--is an eternal wonder of musical art. And van Zweden really knows this. Unlike Haitink, whose every effort in Mahler interpretation seems to try to display a smooth connection between Mahler’s eccentricities and the accepted choices of past masters (and somewhat tame the beast no matter how beautifully displayed), van Zweden seemed to acknowledge both the connection to the past but also to travel to the raw psychic places that previous composers had no means of expressing. The timing was just under 30 minutes. (Compare to Haitink’s recording with the CSO which is over 34 minutes.)
There were only two hammer blows. [Mahler originally put in three hammer blows which were to represent fate striking the hero. But evidently he thought better of it and eliminated the third one. Alma has stated that he was too devastated emotionally to have his hero/self be finally felled by this third blow.] But these were, if not earth shattering, at least stage rattling. I could actually **feel** them bodily for the first time in my concert-going experience because I was up front on the same side as the percussion battery.
“One thing about the hammer blows was very curious. Ravinia does a brilliant job of telecasting the performances on two big screens at the sides of the stage. They must have four or five cameras working and are able to show even the briefest of solos in close-up. Because of the fortunate spot where I was sitting, I could keep my eyes on van Zweden at all times but still shift my gaze slightly to the right of him to catch the TV screen. Of course, I expected to see blanket coverage of the percussionist (little Cindy Yeh Strauss in past performances) mounting the quasi scaffold and then slamming down the mallet. Nada. No view of the hammer of any sort at any time. However, the TV picture did *shake* substantially at the hammer blows which was a surprisingly pleasing, serendipitous effect.
“The audience response, after about 10 seconds of silence with JVZ holding his arms extended, was about as enthusiastically rambunctious as the good-time, Ravinia Festival audience could possibly produce. There were solo and section bows galore.
“I don’t know if the CSO is looking for a Principal Guest Conductor--officially or not. And I don’t know how the timing of van Zweden’s contract terms with the Dallas Symphony will work out with the expected 5-to 6-year tenure of Muti with the CSO. [Ricardo Muti is the current superstar Music Director of the Chicago Symphony.] But the administration should certainly keep JVZ performing with the CSO as frequently as possible. After Dallas, the sky will be the limit for this conductor.”