Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mahler Under the Stars

Remember drive-in movies? Like that ...

A couple of months back I reported on the debut concert of the New World Symphony in their new home on South Beach. Last weekend we got it into our heads to catch the final performance of the season, Mahler's Sixth Symphony, which was given outdoors as a Wallcast.

From Mahler Under the Stars

The whole idea of the Wallcast is a signature feature of the Frank Ghery-designed facility. What it does is to turn the concert hall inside out, transforming what used to be a closed performance for a select audience into an open one for the public at large.

Of course there is a long history of public concerts going back long before bandshells and bandstands in parks, and certainly before outdoor rock concerts. Mozart, for example, composed one of his finest wind serenades for such an event. It was so popular with both performers and the public that the musicians played it over and over again -- even late at night in front of the composer's balcony as a way of saying thank you.

But projecting the event from inside the building onto its exterior as it happens is a new wrinkle. So is the construction of a public park from which to enjoy the concert, including a permanently installed high quality sound system. We decided this was something we had to see -- and hear.

Apparently close to a thousand other people had the same idea. By the time we arrived, about 15 minutes before concert time, the grass between the tubular stereo speaker systems was packed with people, many with blankets and lawn chairs. (My advice -- arrive well in advance to stake your claim.) We found some space where the Wall was only partially blocked by a palm tree and settled in.

A bit after 8:00 the 5-storey screen bloomed into imagery with the colors of the sunset sky still fading behind it. Applause greeted the gigantic spectacled face of Michael Tilson Thomas as he launched into a brief introduction to Mahler's opus, including his own playing of a few bars on the piano. These commentaries before each of the four movements were brief but enlightening, and served to further open up the music to a wider audience. (They also demonstrated that there was at least a short delay between interior live performance and the external video, because indoors the audience did not see or hear those introductions.)

And what can you say about Mahler? (Actually I have so much to say about him that it will have to keep for another time.) Hearing the spacious majesty of this century-old music as it spilled out beneath the stars seemed somehow perfectly appropriate. The Sixth is all about Fate, from the ominous opening march to the fall of the famous hammer blows in the finale -- yes, that's a hammer, a big one, landing on a big rectangle to create a concussion unlike anything else in the orchestra. WHAM!

So, a good time was had by all, including a pair of toddlers trying to dance as if it were a rock festival, and one of the most well-mannered dogs I've ever seen -- and in spite of a smattering of those whose cell phones or private conversations were considered too important to postpone. But hey, that's the great American outdoors. I only hope that they absorbed something of the music, if only unconsciously.

Wending our way home we marvelled at the human ability to perform as well as to absorb such a complex tapestry, but even more the ability to conceive of it in the first place and to be able to write it all down for the ages. Mahler's music is fraught with meaning and portent. Composing this in 1903-4, he seems to sense the approaching doomsday of the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the threat of nuclear Armageddon that were only decades away.

Hearing it now, we can only hope there are not more such events heading our way, perhaps only a matter of years in our own future. Mahler originally put three hammer blows into this work, but later took one of them out as if he couldn't bear it. Maybe in this he was being merciful, or maybe it was an expression of hope. I'd like to think so. Maybe that last strike of the hammer is the one that hasn't happened ... yet.

[Mahler specified the sound of the Hammer -- "brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe)" -- but not how to produce it. Apparently lots of things have been tried, including just a large bass drum, but the prevalent solution seems to be a big wooden sledge hammer hitting a resonant wooden box. The one the New World used was, shall we say, very effective.]