The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov, Conductor
Detlev Glanert: Theatrum bestiarum,
Songs and Dances for Large Orchestra”
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor
Isaac Stern Auditorium/Ronald O. Perelman Stage
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
November 30, 2016
Detlev Glanert (b. 1960): Theatrum bestiarum, Songs and Dances for Large Orchestra (New York Premiere).
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911): Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor (1901-02).
“Trauermarsch: In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt.”
“Stürmisch bewegt. Mit grösster Vehemenz.”
Scherzo: “Kräftig, nicht zuschnell”.
Adagietto: “Sehr langsam”.
Tonight’s exemplary concert at Carnegie Hall, performed with the highest level of professionalism by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, under the baton of Semyon Bychkov, is one I will always remember with awe and deep appreciation. It was just a coincidence that I became entranced with Mahler’s Adagietto, which figured in the score of an absorbing new film about Howard Hughes, and yearned to hear it live. Coincidentally, the Concertgebouw was in town, and I was lucky to find one of the last remaining tickets for this sold-out event. From my front dress circle seat, the conductor and orchestra were in full view.
Detlev Glanert’s New York premiere of Theatrum bestiarum, Songs and Dances for Large Orchestra was a striking experience in the man-as-beast mode, with eeriness of mood and ghostly tonal imagery. Glanert dedicates this work to Shostakovich, while respectively crediting Mahler and Ravel for elements of grimness and detail. One of the visual takeaways was the massive mute for the tuba, used for deeply devilish phrases. The piece opens with whispering refrains that shift to percussive blasts, followed by elephantine evocations of massiveness from the brass. The strings become frenzied until the organ commands the audience’s attention like a showstopper. Flutes and violins turn apparitional in filmatic foreboding, followed by musical metaphors of train station (or jungle) motifs. Soon a serendipitous melody creeps through the mayhem amidst the bristling brass, before the xylophone and strings calm the spirit. Mr. Glanert, a house composer with the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, took two stage bows to generous audience accolades.
But, it was the over-one-hour Mahler Fifth Symphony that sealed this Concertgebouw concert into one of the greatest ever conducted in this hallowed hall. Isaac Stern, for whom the hall is named, would be proud. The symphony is divided into five movements, with each movement, on some level, quoting from another, yet with altered tempo and mood. The five movements are detailed above and will be described here in the gestalt. The symphony opens with an enchanting trumpet introduction, played by Miroslav Petkov, who is listed as Principal. A repetitive, marching funeral dirge brought out the feisty trombones. Sweeping, stormy brass with windy refrains ensued, heraldic and echoing. Soon, surging, robust trumpets combined with strings and timpani for balletic flair. In fact, I thought of three fierce ballet characters, Von Rothbart (Swan Lake), Madge (La Sylphide), and Carabosse (The Sleeping Beauty), who would have been quite comfortable moving to this symphony’s most edgy, dramatic passages. The contrasts in Mahler’s masterpiece keep the imagination busy. Birdlike flutes and echoing harp and bassoons brought sunlight into the earlier midnight antics.
The French horns, in unison, created a fanfare, along with a bucolic tuba and frenzied, but balmy strings, before pizzicato strings, combined with flutes and oboes, added verve to a dancing trumpet. Feverish brass ensued. The Adagietto (for strings and harp only) was nothing short of sublime. More about Maestro Bychkov below, who conducted entirely and flawlessly from memory; to experience his artistry is exquisite. He kept the sumptuous strings to heavenly dreaminess, the harp to momentary magnetism, and the audience to rapt symbiosis with the orchestra. There are ballets scored to Mahler’s Adagietto, as well as the 1971 film, Death in Venice, loosely based on Mahler. Bychkov kept the momentum languorous, as the composer directed, and not funereal as it is often performed. It was fittingly rapturous and yearning, as Mahler composed the Adagietto for a love letter to his soon-to-be wife, Alma. A breathtaking two-note phrase that momentarily stops the music, each time it’s played, could be Mahler’s invocation of Alma’s name. Then, the final movement speeds up the phrases from the Adagietto for joyful ebullience. One can’t help but wonder if Alma had just agreed to marry, when the fifth movement was composed. At this point, already an hour or more into the concert, the audience was truly, emotionally transported and wishing Maestro Bychkov’s baton would not be stilled.
Maestro Semyon Bychkov and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performed throughout the evening as an organic whole, attuned to one another. The conductor’s slightest gesture drew not only the requisite solo on trumpet or timpani, but also the most magnificent tonal mastery of each instrument to its maximum potential. One could see that each visiting musician seemed so proud to be at Carnegie Hall, so determined to create musical magic. This is a sophisticated European orchestra with not only stylistic depth but also emotional and dramatic understanding of the composer’s intent and the conductor’s desire. At the final note of the Mahler, not a sound could be heard, but then the hall erupted with a bountiful, endless standing ovation. The Maestro walked deliberately through the interior rows of the seated musicians to bring each of the symphony’s soloists to a standing, personalized bow. He then walked again to bring groupings of musicians, on bass, on French horns, on percussion, etc., and finally the full orchestra to its own spotlight. Kudos to Maestro Semyon Bychkov, who began his career studying in Leningrad. Kudos to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. And, kudos to Gustav Mahler.And, now I will listen to a 1926 recording of the Royal Concertgebouw playing Mahler's "Adagietto", conducted by Mengelberg, Mahler's friend and colleague.