When I told my friends I'd be traveling to Brazil to cover New England Conservatory's Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (YPO -the Conservatory's pre-college orchestra) four-city concert tour of Brazil, the near-universal response - next to the oohs and aahs about Brazil -was a concerned: How many times will you have to listen to the Mahler Fifth Symphony?
Given that YPO's music director is Mahler specialist Benjamin Zander, the Fifth was certainly the centerpiece of this tour, and a major challenge for any orchestra let alone an ensemble of students between the ages of 13 and 18 (plus 2 professional ringers and a few YPO alums).
Including the send-off concert at NEC's Jordan Hall in Boston, I heard seven complete performances of the Mahler, along with major sections of it in numerous rehearsals and a recording session on the last day of the tour. I heard even more performances of the Brazilian and American national anthems, Leonard Bernstein's Candide Overture, and the Prelude to Villa Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4, which began most of the Mahler programs and also joined Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez's pounding, African-inspired Batuque (Danza di negri), Astor Piazzola's languorous "Oblivion" (with Edward Kim's sensual clarinet solo), Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, "Stars and Stripes Forever","When the Saints Go Marching In",and the Star Wars main title, on a Pops program that was presented mainly in such outdoor venues as Bio's Copacabana Beach (where the stage lights went out in the middle of the Tchaikovsky but the orchestra kept playing from memory in the dark!) and Sao Paulo's urban and urbane Ibirapuera Park.
But I never got tired of hearing these performances, especially the Mahler, because the players were so galvanized (even on days when they'd been pushed by the brutal schedule - as one player put it -"not merely to the limit but beyond it'") and Zander led them with such unflagging intensity.
Already at Jordan Hall, Zander's view of Mahler's Fifth Symphony-its overall dramatic shape and the nuances of its endless emotional transitions - emerged with power. This seemed one of his sharpest and freest conceptions. And he was teaching the students to play meaningful phrases that crossed the barlines, not just to get from one bar to the next.
I loved the solitary opening trumpet fanfare (the phenomenal head-shaved Tom Cupples), like a solitary soldier who's survived a holocaust in outrage and sorrow, and the way it's answered by weeping strings (Helena Baillie the superb concertmistress of a remarkable string section) -Zander pulling back the tempo to underline the difficulty of finding "words." And I was struck with the subtlety of Benjamin Fox's whispered timpani strokes.
In the stormy second movement, the cellos (Kate Bennett and Alexei Gonzales co-principals) came into their own - a world-class combination of velvety depth and buoyancy. I've always thought of the big cello theme as a kind of tangomacabre, a seductive, sinister dance of love and death, Mahler altering the rhythm of the opening march (his parody of the opening of another Fifth Symphony - Beethoven's) just enough to change everything. Zander once used the image of astonished prisoners coming into the daylight after long captivity. Remarkably, thereafter, I could hear both images simultaneously -Zander at his best helping Mahler at his best to achieve this extreme degree of ambiguity.
The long third-movement Scherzo, with its parody waltzes and ambivalent view of Vienna (was this satire or nostalgia?), had trouble hanging together till one rehearsal at which Zander demonstrated how much more swing it had conducted "in one" rather than "in three." By the
end of the tour, it had tightened up by nearly two minutes. Yet even when the movement was most disjointed, the enchanting pizzicato interlude (like a ghostly guitar serenade), Jill Jaques's hushed horn lullaby, Leah Seiffert's flawless oboe solo, and all the loving, evocative winds never failed to get under my skin.
The famous Adagietto, with its important harp accompaniment (Nicholas Harlow) and great basses, eventually lost more than two of its initial 11 minutes. I liked it in Boston, where it unfolded slowly, a passionate lyric outpouring (not the usual dirge), an enveloping, consoling love song, Mahler's Tristan.
The expansive, celebratory finale, which takes the love theme of the Adagietto and doubles the tempo, also had its ups and downs. Convincing in Boston, it had the messiest ensemble. On the tour it got better-and worse - before it achieved near perfection.
I became extremely engrossed in and moved by hearing the changes in each performance - the dispiriting failures, the ecstatic successes, and the way the Mahler changed in the various acoustics, from the lush radiance of Rio's Teatro Municipal to the warmth and honesty of São Paolo's Teatro Municipal, to the dryer acoustics of the newer halls in Campinas, Porto Alegre, and Curitiba.
Ironically, the YPO got no reviews, though there was extensive media coverage and audiences were enraptured (at the Pops program in the outdoor stadium in Campinas, the players were cheered like rock stars and had to be guarded from a crowd that wanted to touch them). Maybe because critics don't take youth orchestras seriously. The New York Philharmonic was also in Brazil, and was described by one critic as "mediocre." He chose the wrong concert to review.
Lloyd Schwartz is the Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix, in which most of this piece appeared.