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My first live Mahler's Sixth

Part One - Mozart Piano Concerto No.24

It is a rare opportunity to listen to Mahler Sixth anywhere, and as it turns out, these two performances of Mahler Sixth are the first ever in Hong Kong. Regardless of the performance of the orchestra, a live Mahler concert is always a memorable experience. Not to mention I considered Mahler Sixth to be one of the most 'hardcore' Mahler symphonies.

The programs on both nights are identical, featuring Maestro Carlo Rizzi as conductor, and Ollu Mustonen as pianist. The program was Mozart Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K.491 and Mahler Sixth.

I shall base my experience mainly on the second night. The concert hall in the Cultural Center has the ability to completely ruin the sound of an Orchestra. The first night, sitting down in the stall, was absolutely horrible acoustically. The second night, we sat up in the center balcony and the sound was dramatically improved.

Mustonen had two very memorable performances of the Mozart Piano Concerto. I shall focus on the performance of Mahler Sixth.

Part Two - Mahler Sixth

The Orchestra had to hire an additional 23 players to fufil the expansive orchestration of Mahler Sixth. This is a huge work with a towering structure.

A 'new' friend recently asked me what my 'listening preference' is for Mahler's works. Mahler Sixth was low on my list. Do not take me wrong, I LOVE Mahler Sixth. In fact Mahler Sixth must be among one of my most 'favorite' of all music. But to listen to Mahler Sixth is to undertake a hellish torturous jorney, one with no 'resurrection' or redemption. A dead end.

I was a little worried whether the HKPO could pull this off. But as soon as the opening chords strike, my worry largely subsided. Rizzi adopted some fairly 'standard' tempi throughout (except for the Andante moderato, Rizzi's tempo was slightly faster than 'standard'). HKPO sounded fairly good from the balcony. And the sound was quite well balanced.

The Sixth must be played with absolute precision with lots and lots of energy. While the basic 'sound' was there, the Orchestra lacked the knife-sharp precision that is required. The strings lack texture and there was way too little 'bite'.

Lots of tiny technical imperfections from the Orchestra, but Rizzi's conducing was solid. Rizzi adopted the more accepted order of the movements. Mahler once doubted the Scherzo being too similar to the opening Allegro and moved the Scherzo to the Third movement, moving up the Andante to the second movement. But in the 1963 Critical Edition, the Scherzo was placed second, following the 'similar sounding' Allegro. The Orchestra lacks the 'mood swing' that is required to play the Sixth. For example, while the Allegro started with a march rhythm, when the 'Alma theme' enters, the Orchestra should 'sing' the theme. The Alma theme should be in stark contrast with the heavy marching rthythm of the beginning. While the difference was there, the contrast was simply not enough. As a result, the Alma theme sounded rush and not lush.

The Scherzo was not played as convincingly as the Allegro. But then, most of Mahler's Scherzo are difficult to play. Mahler has a very twisted sense of reality. Traditional rhythms and melodies always get very distorted in his Scherzos. They are full of ironies, oxymorons, conflicts and surreal thoughts.

After two heavily rhythmic movements, the Andante moderato was a startling contrast. The Andante moderato is one of the most beautiful movements Mahler ever wrote. The pace changed, but the solemn mood remained. The music yearns for something you know it will never obtain or achieve. The movement builds up one layer on top of another until an absolutely heart-stopping climax is reached right near the end. Rizzi and the Orchestra pulled this movement off very nicely. The music is relatively simple and the Orchestra had a much better grasp on this movement than the other three. And it was just too beautifully written, God would not let them mess up.

The 'heart' of the Symphony lies in the 30-minute long Finale. In fact, I always felt that if it were not for this movement, the Sixth may not be called 'Tragic'. The Finale is probably the most difficult of all movements to conduct and perform. It requires a high level of energy (this is about 45 minutes into the piece), and absolute focus from musicians and audience alike. I did not feel the Orchestra had enough physical energy to really play the Finale as it was intended. The Movement started off with 'Allegro moderato' and gradually goes to 'Allegro energico.' It requires so much energy throughout (even the quieter sections) in order to maintain the highlest level of musical tension. The second half is so charged up that if you try to breathe with the music, you will suffocate. It leaves you no room to breathe. The Orchestra seemed to have built a new 'hammer' to perform the three famous 'hammer blows'. The size of the hammer is the size of an adult body. Frankly, I was happy to see they actually used a hammer. Mahler specified for a 'short non metallic thud,' and a wooden hammer slamming on a wooden block is not a bad way to achieve the effect. Rizzi chose to do all three hammer blows. Mahler himself got rid of the third hammer blow when he conducted the piece, but most scholars believed that Mahler only did that out of supertituous reasons. Musically, having the third hammer blow makes a lot more sense than without.

With so little time to prepare for a concert, Rizzi chose a terribly difficult piece to perform with the HKPO. As HKPO's premiere of M6, they deserve to be congratulated. Rizzi combined precision with just the right amount of 'expression'. HKPO on the other hand suffered from many technical problems. But I was not disappointed. With more

The concert is over. It was my first live Mahler Sixth. I looked around, and it was just a very sad scene. The hall was only about one third full. There were over one hundred musicians on stage. In terms of 'musicians:audience' ratio, this makes this concert a 'very good deal.' But such great music should really be heard by more. I have always tried to be less picky in a live concert. Afterall, most of our CDs are recordings of world-class orchestras like BPO and VPO, we really cannot expect the same level of performance from HKPO. We are spoiled by the accessibility made possible by today's technologies. The important thing about a 'live' Mahler performance is that you know you are witnessing the creation (and destruction) of a world created by Mahler.

On Mahler Sixth

Mahler himself wrote to Richard Specht, "My sixth will propound riddles the solution of which may be attempted only by a generation which has absorbed and truly digested my first five symphonies." And Alban Berg wrote to Anton Webern, declaring that Mahler Sixth is "The only Sixth, despite the 'Pastoral'." This is the one work that made a huge impact on composers of the Twentith Century and had a deep impact on the Second Vienesse School.

I now understand why Matthew Collins said that 'thinking through the piece (Sixth) is enough'. Sixth, live, can be a very unbearable, unpleasent and totally draining experience. In fact, for the Sixth, after the final sound dies off of the Finale, the concert hall should just dim its light. There should be no applause, no 'Bravo'. That is how I believe it ought to end.

The very first chords of the Sixth to me sound like a very thick rope being pulled in two opposite directions. As the music moves along, I, the listener, feel like a tiny little ant trying to go from one end of the rope to the other. As I move along, I see knots being formed. Forces try to untie the knots, but the more the forces try to untie, the bigger the knots are created. The tension of the rope only increases. It is a struggle just to go over each knot, only find yourself to have to overcome bigger, thicker knots. And then in the Finale, you do not reach the other end. The tension simply snaps the rope. And you fall so deep you know there is no escape.

I believe this is the only Mahler symphony that ends in a minor key. And I do not think this happened by accident. Mahler ALWAYS struggles his way through music. His Symphonies may not always end triumphantly, but you often comes to a point of 'forced acceptance'. DLvDE ends with singing the word 'forever' over and over again. While it is a very 'negative' ending, the word 'forever' gives you the idea of 'hope'. The Ninth ends in near-silence. The music dies off, breath by breath. The music disintegrates and not just of music itself, but of time and space. It takes you to a whole other level of existence, another dimension.

Only the Sixth ends with such pessismism. It does not offer you a 'second chance'. It bluntly puts everything to a stop. The marching rhythms from the first two movements, the lush melody from the Andante...nothing can solve the conflicts presented in the Finale. There was no way out, except to end it. The music commits suicide.

As a listener, one must be aware of Mahler's state of mind when he wrote the piece. The Sixth was written during the summers of 1903 and 04, apparently the 'happiest time' of his life. He had a happy family with two adorable daughters. And as the Director of the Vienna Opera, he was one of the most powerful figures at the time in Vienna. It was with this background he wrote the Sixth. And only a year before he started on the Sixth, he wrote a set of songs, Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). Alma, his wife was offended (afterall they were happily married with two adorable children) and yelled at Mahler for writing them. She thought of them as a curse when their elder daughter died at the age of 4 of scarlet fever.

While religions offer some people answers to the meaning of life, and physicists try to understand the Universe through mathematical models, Mahler tried to find himself through music. I believe it was always his personal goal. But it so happened that this 'personal' goal is actually quite universal. And that is why so many of us love Mahler the way we do.

To listen to the Sixth alone is not seeing the bigger picture offered by Mahler. It has been suggsted by many that Mahler's symphonic works should be regarded as one gigantic sound autobiography. The Sixth represented a volume of his autobiography and it reflected one 'proposed solution' he had on the meaning of life. And he so happend to find this solution during the happiest of his life. Perhaps it is because the happier he was, the more worrying he became. This duality of emotions is a very important charateristic in order to understand his music. The more he had, the more he would lose (and he did). Many people see this as a 'cowardly' way to live and accusing him of not living life to its fullest. But all you need to do is to listen to the energy, the struggles, the 'courage' and life he created and put in the music (even in the Sixth), his will to thrive. You will see how much he must have loved to have lived.

2003 12.05 & 12.06 - WS