Too much Mahler?
Let me get this out right away: I am not a Mahlerian. There, I've said it.
Don't get me wrong. I enjoy listening occasionally to the monumental symphonies and deeply emotional songs of Gustav Mahler. I have no problem including him among music's immortals. I'm in awe of his mastery of the orchestra. Some of my best friends are Mahlerians, a subset of music lovers almost as eccentric and obsessive as Brucknerians -- which is saying a lot.
But I can't say that my appetite for his music is inexhaustible, as it is for, say, Bach, Mozart or Louis Armstrong. Perhaps I'm being cynical, but after a while, I can't help feeling somewhat manipulated by his music, and lose patience with the constant, obsessive hyper-emotionalism of of it all. Whenever I attend a performance of, for instance, the Symphony No. 2 ("Resurrection"), I find myself looking around for the man behind the curtain, pulling levers, playing theatrical tricks on me. Not that I don't get a kick out of the 2nd Symphony (especially the second and third movements); I just remain detached rather than moved. This is by no means to begrudge whatever pleasure you take from Mahler, or to suggest that orchestras should stop playing him. But now you know where I'm coming from.
So you can probably guess my reaction to The Mahler Project, an upcoming three-week festival of everything Mahler to be given in both LA and Caracas by conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. The ostensible reason for the project is to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mahler's death. That's fitting in a way, considering the premonitions of death that hang over much of Mahler's music -- another reason I can only take so much of it at a time.
Such intensive complete traversals of huge gobs of repertoire have become quite the thing. Once-novel events, such as the complete Cello Suites of Bach or Béla Bartók's six String Quartets in one evening, now occur almost routinely. And they're nothing when viewed against such marathons as English pianist Julian Jacobson's one-day traversals of Beethoven's complete 32 Piano Sonatas.
But at what point does such an event stop being an artistic celebration, and instead become a tiresome stunt? Even more modest programs which seem attractive on paper can end up being too much of a good thing. I remember planning a multi-season traversal of Beethoven's Quartets with the Orion Quartet several years ago for the chamber music series I program. When I came up with the none-too-brilliant idea of doing all three of the Opus 59 ("Razumovsky") Quartets in one evening, hardly as long a stretch of music as the others mentioned here, they declined. They'd thought about it, they'd even done it, and ended up concluding that it didn't do justice to the works' individual greatness to endure them all in one concert. I also feel that way about single programs of Schubert's last three Sonatas, which many pianists have performed. While I adore these works individually, I can only be put through the emotional wringer so many times in one sitting before feeling wrung-out.
By the way, this is one reason why we don't usually celebrate the birthdays of the immortals with full days of their music on WFCR. Most listeners appreciate a consistent variety (sounds oxymoronic, but it's not), and don't wake up on December 16, for instance, and say "Oh boy, nothing but Beethoven today!" Some extra Ludwig van on his birthday, sure. But a whole day? Naah.
Okay, so "The Dude" and his bands are not doing Mahler in one fell swoop, but over three weeks. Even still, how much individual attention can be paid, by either the musicians or the audience, to each massive masterwork in such a concentrated time-frame? How many rides on Mahler's psychological roller-coaster can one endure before queasiness sets in? Are these great works of music, or a range of mountains to climb? Is this an artistic endeavor, or an act of musical machismo and self-promotion? And after you've done your big Mahler thing, Maestro Dudamel, what will you have for us next?
My preference: One Mahler per season, please. These are special works that should be pulled out for special occasions. Like starting pitchers and football players, the musicians and audience need ample recovery time after each exhausting ordeal. By doing all his Symphonies like this, you may be proving a point, but you're not doing justice to the music, and are therefore cheating your patrons of your -- and Mahler's -- best.