A Devastating Double-Bill: Thoughts on Elektra and Mahler 9 at Lincoln Center (part 2)

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(To read Part 1 of this post, please click here.

The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic don’t get together in the offseason and plan out their repertoire as a team, so it was pure coincidence that Richard Strauss’ dark psychodrama, Elektra, opened at The Met the same weekend the Philharmonic was playing Mahler’s bleak final symphony. Lincoln Center’s coincidence was my good fortune and turned into the reason my wife and I booked a long overdue trip to New York the week we did.

A blistering one-act revenge opera in a brand new staging that emphasizes the inner turmoil of the characters over their actions? Yes, please! A tragic symphony which disintegrates at the end and which is quite possibly a farewell to life itself? You betcha!Hamilton this was not. (Neither was it Hamilton prices, which meant we could also afford to eat meals while in New York.)

Often, when I get really excited about a particular performance, it fails to live up to my expectations. But in the cases of Elektra (conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and featuring a stellar cast led by soprano Nina Stemme in the title role) and Mahler 9 (conducted by a legendary Mahlerian, the eminent Bernard Haitink), both exceeded expectations–for different reasons. Both, also, were enhanced by art exhibitions we visited during the day.

My thoughts on Mahler 9:

  • “Unfinished paintings are more admired than the finished because the artist’s actual thoughts are left visible.” -Pliny the Younger
  • That’ll make more sense in a moment.
  • I had never seen Bernard Haitink conduct live, but of course, I know his incredible recordings, especially of Mahler. There was plenty of Mahler pedigree in this performance: Haitink spent 27 years at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra–an ensemble which Mahler adored. Mahler himself was music director of the New York Philharmonic when he wrote his Ninth Symphony.
  • I’ve become a bit of a Mahler 9 groupie, but before this concert, it had been quite a while since I had heard anyone other than Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil perform it.
  • I’ve always loved the way the symphony disintegrates at the end. It’s such a wonderful metaphor for life, as well as a bit more than a metaphor for Mahler’s own life. I tend to subscribe to the Leonard Bernstein interpretation of Mahler 9: the beginning rhythm is Mahler’s irregular heartbeat and each of the movements represent a farewell of some kind.
    • 1st movement –  farewell to family and friends
    • 2nd movement – farewell to the dance
    • 3rd movement – farewell to the city
    • 4th movement – farewell to life
  • Of course, that is only an interpretation, and certainly one could argue that Mahler was in good spirits when he wrote his Ninth Symphony (which he was, at least publicly). But Mahler was also highly superstitious and avoided writing a Ninth Symphony for fear of the Curse of the Ninth.
  • What is clear is this is symphony is extremely fraught, psychologically. Which made it a perfect follow-up the night after seeing the intense psychodrama that is Strauss’s Elektra at The Metropolitan Opera.
  • Even though he made his United States debut with the LA Phil (1959), Bernard Haitink doesn’t make it to Los Angeles anymore. So, the only opportunity for a West Coaster like me to see the 87-year-old conduct is to head east. Haitink conducting Mahler 9 at the New York Philharmonic was one of two reasons my wife and I scheduled our New York vacation when we did. (Salonen conducting Elektra at The Met was the other.)
  • The performance was so worth it: Haitink’s interpretation changed my perspective on Mahler 9–something I didn’t think was possible. Something that may not have been possible without the art exhibition we had seen earlier in the day at the newly-opened museum at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Met Breuer (pronounced BROY-er).

Breuer-day

  • That’s where that Pliny quote (first bullet point above) comes from. One of the two inaugural shows at The Met Breuer is called “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.” It is two floors and 197 works dating from the Renaissance to the present which ask the question: When is a work of art actually finished?
  • Every work in the show is in some way unfinished: either accidentally, intentionally, experimentally, or conceptually.
    • Sometimes the reason a work was left unfinished was because the artist died during its creation.
    • Sometimes the reason a work was left unfinished was because the artist became unsatisfied with it and abandoned its creation.
    • Sometimes the reason a work was left unfinished was because the artist was pushing the boundaries of artistic convention.
    • Sometimes the reason a work was left unfinished was because the artist was making a specific statement about the importance of process over product.
  • Each work is a window into the mind and soul of each artist.
  • So, too, is Mahler 9.
  • Bernard Haitink certainly has conducted this symphony dozens, if not hundreds, of times. His concept of the work is totally internalized. Having lived with the work for this many years, allows him more artistic freedom in his interpretation.
  • That interpretation last weekend with the New York Philharmonic allowed me to hear the symphony with nearly fresh ears.
  • For the first time, I heard Mahler 9 as a symphony where it’s not just the final movement which vaporizes into tiny strands of music as the music gradually and devastatingly falls apart.
  • In fact, all four movements of Mahler 9 disintegrate into nothingness. Throughout the entire symphony, Mahler is foreshadowing what will happen in the finale.
    • In the first movement, the falling two-note “lebwohl” (farewell) motive, which launches all of the thematic material of the nearly 30-minute movement, eventually takes over at the end. Just two notes, which get passed among members of the wind section, the French horns, and eventually the solo violin, before the eerie sound of the piccolo finally plays a single high note that dies away without resolution. Accidental incompletion.
    • In the second movement, three dances vie for supremacy and in the end, none of them win. Instead, Mahler just gives us a sinister coda which features the contrabassoon and the piccolo again. Experimental incompletion.
    • In the third movement, the main theme is fragmentary to begin with and the ending takes the bits and pieces and ramps them up to warp speed before crashing into a wall. Conceptual incompletion.
  • The fourth movement collapse is well-documented, and as all these new revelations about the first three movements had come to me during the course of the performance, I was more than eager to settle in for one of my favorite movements in all of classical music.
  • Haitink took the fourth movement at a rather brisk pace, which was an incredibly risky and courageous move. It’s way easier to milk it for all its worth. That’s what the people want. But Haitink’s tempo was more matter-of-fact. It was as if he was saying, “I’ve set you up for this in the first three movements. You know what’s going to happen. Let’s not pretend this is going to end with a triumphant adagio, like the third symphony does.”
  • In the past, I’ve heard the fourth movement of the ninth as having three big farewells to romance, with the third as the ultimate climax. With Haitink, though, I now hear the fourth movement as three unfinished paintings: the first two are left unresolved (conceptually unfinished) to prepare us for the final unfinished painting. It’s the one that should be the Big Finish, the ultimate climax. But in fact, it too, is unfinished.
  • For the first time in the symphony, we have a painting that is intentionally left unfinished. And that is what makes Mahler 9 so devastating. Sure, there’s a big cymbal crash (that, again, reminds us of the big cymbal crash at the climax of the finale of the third symphony), but unlike the third, the cymbal crash of the ninth is not a crash of culmination. The cymbal crash of the ninth is a cymbal crash of failure.
  • (At the performance I attended, this final cymbal crash also came about half a beat early, which can’t have been on purpose, but which actually added to my experience of the performance.)
  • The “climax” of Mahler 9 is the moment when Mahler puts down his brushes with resignation, realizing that he has created something that can never be complete.
  • “To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul.” -Pablo Picasso
  • And this, to me, is the essence of Mahler 9. We could learn a lot from Picasso and Pliny the Younger. I still see Mahler 9 as devastating music. But after Haitink and The Met Breuer, I now also see Mahler 9 as one of the most supremely uplifting pieces of music ever written. Because there is fulfillment in the unfulfilled. There is joy in the process.
  • Who says when something has reached completion? Who decides when process becomes product?
  • Mahler never wanted to finish his ninth symphony. He avoided No. 9 by calling what should have been his ninth symphony Das Lied von der Erde. Failure to finish can actually mean success. After all, everything we create in life is, in a way, incomplete.
  • So, thank you, Bernard Haitink and the New York Philharmonic. Thank you, also, The Met Breuer…and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Nina Stemme, The Metropolitan Opera, and The Whitney Museum of American Art.
  • Collectively, you reshaped my concept of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.
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2 thoughts on “A Devastating Double-Bill: Thoughts on Elektra and Mahler 9 at Lincoln Center (part 2)

  1. Pingback: A Devastating Double-Bill: Thoughts on Elektra and Mahler 9 at Lincoln Center (part 1) | Brian Lauritzen

  2. Wow. Now I’m going to go back and relisten to this symphony. What great insight from the artists, especially Pliny the Younger (whose old man makes a mean brew!) And you expressed all your points so clearly. I shared with my Facebook friends, thanks so much.

    Any clue where Elektra will screen in LA on the 30th?

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