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Brevard Music Center closed out the 2005 summer season with David Effron conducting Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 6. If you have followed the BMC season, you realize the significance of this single work on the last program. All the other great works and programs have led to this one concert. Before all the chickens leave for home, it's time for little mano á mano with one of the titans of turn-of-last-century symphonic genre.
But the central question is, will we all survive? See, at 80 minutes, four movements, and no intermission, this thing is an enduro. It was written at the peak of the composer's personal life and intellectual powers, but social indicators and other pangs resulting in WWI were also in the air, producing a certain darkness. Mahler was truly pushing the envelope. James Howsmon wrote, "The vehemence of some of the music seems almost to exceed the expressive capacity of the orchestra." That would explain the huge wooden box and oversized hammer being swung by the percussion people. It doesn't make a sound like a drum. It goes BOOM!
On a more balanced foot, the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians notes, "Many distinguished musicians, including Berg and Webern, have judged the Sixth Symphony to be among the greatest of Mahler's works, possibly because of its remarkable equilibrium between form and drama. It is the most 'classical' of his works."
Yeah, whatever. I could have made a fortune selling Prozac out front when it was over. "Moody" doesn't even begin to describe the range of this thing.
A nearly constant rain shower served as an idyllic backdrop in this wonderful mountain setting as the program began. In a departure from previous protocol, William Campbell performed "The Star Spangled Banner" a cappella on trumpet from the conductor’s stand while the audience sang. The stage of W-P Auditorium was extended 12 feet toward the audience to accommodate the 137-member Brevard Music Center Orchestra and produce a better sound in the hall. This improved sound was so effective that a sponsor has been found to fund a permanent extension. Next season, look for a new hydraulic stage extension that can be lowered to serve the pit band during operas.
After some give-away raffle business, David Effron took the stage for the real business. Using a stick and a score, he clearly showed himself to be at home in such large-scale and complicated works. The second theme treatment came to center front, as did the occasional march rhythm from the percussion. We haven't talked about Concertmaster David Brinkman, but now would be a good time to point out his remarkable solo violin work in the first movement and the accompanying change of timbre that helped focus that part. Very good!
The second movement, a scherzo, has that Jaws feel in the low brass; I looked over my shoulder to see if giant mutant geese were lurking nearby. I was a little uneasy as the entire orchestra retuned at the half-way point. I couldn't put my finger on it, but there is something in this music that goes deeper than the musical sticks and balls on a printed page. In the literature, there is near constant reference to this symphony as "Tragic." There is a long and jangled explanation about centers of sonority, themes, and precedents that (scholars will tell you) provide great clarity. Frankly I don't think all that verbiage is necessary, nor does it hit the mark very well. It's easy enough to crank up a rationale to justify a premise. But the fact remains that dark and disturbing elements are present. No doubt.
The andante movement nearly sank us all. It spends much time flirting with the tonic key via the leading tone and super-tonic interval. There is a surprise shift of emphasis to the next vacuous plane, and a fitting tribute to this uneasy trend came toward the end, when distant thunder from a real storm was heard in the background. Our collective security blanket is Conductor Effron, who appeared completely in charge of the work and the orchestra at all times. His approach reminds me of the great romantic conductors – like Bernstein and Toscanini – but without the personality flaws. He is able to pull every important phrase from this very brooding movement and serve it to your ear in a clear manner. There was a wonderful triple pianissimo from the cellos right at end. Excellent playing.
Wham! The fourth movement begins – it's noisy and wandering, with plenty of rhythm and incessant drive. And it woke up everyone who nodded off during the andante. In fact, it started to sound as though steeped in that romantic-hero kind of failure that we seem to welcome in musical tone paintings. From the conductor there was plenty of notice for signature changes, there were no clams or serious intonation problems, and all the principals played well. The big hammer banged away three times and actually woke up some other members of the audience. Then, with a quiet punctuated A, it was over.
Allowing for the giveaway segment –a drawing for a BMW sports car that delayed the program's 3:00 p.m. start time – this concert ended at 4:40 p.m. to a standing, grateful, and cheering audience. It should be said, however, audience members were seen leaving the concert during and between each of the movements.
When I talked with BMC and Brevard College theory teacher and composer Robert Palmer afterwards, he too expressed an uneasy feeling on listening to this music. We also remarked about the opportunity and significance of hearing such a major orchestral work performed live and performed at such a high standard. Both of us had heard this piece only from recordings. Reflecting on our conversation, we advanced the notion Mahler may have been experiencing a cornucopia of social emotions during a period of geopolitical instability, and that these feelings found their way through Mahler's pen to the score — left behind for the ages.
Hence humanity is reminded that it is the power of ideas, regardless of media, that take center stage.
We survived, and I suspect it will ever be thus. I asked Effron when he was leaving town. "Today, as soon as my laundry is done." That's when I realized that the whole thing really was done. So too for all the campers and faculty.
The Brevard Music Center Institute and Festival is finished for 2005.