Lorin Maazel's tenure at helm of NY Philharmonic ends with Mahler's mighty 8th Symphony
Please excuse the delay in blogging, cherished readers. I snuck off to Argentina for a couple days, having heard there were great hiking trails down there. But I flew back via New York in time to catch a significant event Saturday night at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.
There, before a packed, vociferously enthusiastic crowd, Lorin Maazel wrapped up his seven year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic in appropriately grand fashion, leading Mahler's gargantuan Symphony No. 8.
Although discouraging words in the press about Maazel's tenure were not exactly rare over the years, the orchestra seems to have relished the association with one of the world's most brilliant technicians of the baton. Even Maazel's critics usually will grant that he commands a podium as few conductors can. It's his interpretive approach that bothers some folks. The most common complaints are ...
micromanagement and emotional detachment. While I certainly haven't heard a zillion Maazel performances, I've heard a decent share, and I've got to say I've always come away impressed. This Mahler 8 was no exception.
Nicknamed Symphony of a Thousand because roughly that many performers took part in the 1910 premiere, this score requires an enormous skill set from any conductor. Just holding chorus, soloists and orchestra together takes more than a little ability; making sense of it all, delivering a statement that resonates far beyond the merely sonic, requires great incisiveness.
I'll readily grant that Maazel did not deliver, say, the kind of expressive roller-coaster that someone like Bernstein (not that there was ever anyone like Bernstein) could, especially in Part I, the uplifting setting of the ancient text Veni, creator spiritus. Maazel never let that music really rip with the sort of punch that can create a sense of surprise and total spontaneity, but his control of the massive sonic palette was awfully effective just the same.
Where he really showed his stuff was in Part II, Mahler's extraordinary treatment of the final scene of Goethe's Faust. Maazel made the long orchestral introduction terrifically suspenseful and truly absorbing, each pizzicato note from the low strings taking on enormous poetic weight, and the burst of tremolos from the violins creating a really gripping effect. There was just as much to savor once the voices entered the picture again, for the conductor was attentive to the sculpting of each curve and leap of phrase.
Throughout the evening, Maazel drew splendid playing from the Philharmonic, as compelling in the quietest moments as the most thunderous. (What a finely tuned ensemble he passes on to his successor, Alan Gilbert.) The evening also benefitted greatly from the superbly disciplined and richly responsive work of the New York Choral Artists, Dessoff Symphonic Choir and Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
The eight soloists were not uniformly equipped for the considerable challenge, but each of them inhabited the music so thoroughly that any strain in the highest reaches could be overlooked. A Mahler 8 that can boast the gleaming voice of soprano Christine Brewer and eloquent phrasing of tenor Anthony Dean Griffey is doing very well indeed. Highly satisfying, too, were sopranos Nancy Gustafson and Jeanine De Bique and mezzo Mary Phillips.
All in all, a memorable experience, guided wiith calm authority and infused with a certain sense of nobility.
The stunning volume that Maazel unleashed in the coda to the nearly 90-minute performance was met with nearly as loud a roar from the crowd, which reserved its heartiest cheers for the conductor's solo bows. The Philharmonic players applauded vigorously as well. I suspect they're going to miss him.