The Philharmonic Delivers an Inspired Mahler 2nd for New York

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Confession. I have worked hard to avoid most of the 9/11 tributes, reflections, reliving and agonies of the past weeks. I chose to watch the George Bush National Geographic interview, and was impressed with his honesty, humanity and frailty. I helped program an event for WQXR in The Greene Space. But I couldn’t watch the TV loops, the commentators, or look again at those pictures.

It is not because 9/11 didn’t have resonance for me, as I too have my harrowing stories from that day: Seeing the towers fall from Fort Greene. Persuading a cop on the Williamsburg Bridge to let me back into Manhattan. Walking through Chinatown and seeing so many ashen, dusted, dazed people fleeing and so many police and army vehicles tearing up Canal street to make it to the West Side. Walking 15 miles home, having no cell phone reception left to reach my partner, Adam, not knowing if he knew I was OK. My family in the UK completely panicked. 

Compared to others, my experiences are true bystander ones, but for anyone in New York that day, we all saw something we will never forget. And for us all, we were changed. 

The New York Philharmonic’s gift to the city – a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 – was penciled into my calendar in permanent ink when I heard about it. No one does “concert for moments” like the Philharmonic. So many of their music directors have allowed the orchestra to be a part of national grieving, from Bernstein on JFK’s assassination to Masur’s unforgettable gift of Brahms’s Requiem ten days after the attacks. Alan Gilbert knew he had to continue the Philharmonic’s gesture, and Mahler 2 was a programming stoke of genius. Themes of death, light, reflection, dust and resurrection bound up in music that both overwhelms and tugs. That both soars and is nearly silent.  It captures what ten years on means for New York.

Mahler 2 is a piece I knew as a teenager, wearing out a cassette tape recording by Raphael Kubelick. Norma Proctor’s “Urlicht” is the most perfect of any I have heard since. I have many more recordings now, but crazily I have never heard the piece live.  Mahler, I believe, is a composer to hear live. The scope of the orchestra, the sheer volume, the sweat of the performers all combining to make it a living musical experience. Recordings of this type of repertoire can only go so far. 

The New York Philharmonic is like a New Yorker. They know it all, they have seen in all, they are waiting to be impressed and they are deeply proud of their city. When they want to be charming they will be and when they want to hold back, that they will do that too. And sometimes, they underestimate how much they can impact a massive number of people.

Saturday night’s performance was devastating in its power and meaning. The orchestra was on fire and Alan Gilbert utterly inspired. The terror of the opening movement, the tenderness of the dances and folk songs in the middle movements, the stunning serenity of Urlicht, to total fulfillment in the finale. The orchestra pushed the limits of Avery Fisher, and the hall gave back more clarity and resonance than I have heard in years. The audience was the perfect partner in both spontaneous exuberance to a hushed concentration rarely heard by the Phil’s usual ragged subscription crowd.  The applause literally in the middle of the first movement caught many of us my surprise, but Gilbert was perfect, just waiting and then continuing. It made the drama of those C-minor hellish rumbles even more staggering. 

Soloists Michelle DeYoung and Dorothea Rothschman were sublime, and the New York Choral Artists expertly prepared and flawlessly executed. Their pianissimos should be industry standard.  

At the end of the performance, what stood out for me was not the immediate ovation from the sold-out crowd in the hall, but the looks of the faces on the musicians of the Philharmonic. These jaded New Yorkers suddenly realized what they had done. They had helped heal through notes and gesture. They had given the hundreds of victims’ families and first responders a new perspective on the tragedy through their artistry. They had, in the most dramatic of terms, played like the great that they are. Looking at the wide eyes of Becky Young, Carter Brey, Alan Gilbert and so many others, you could see that they had been changed by Mahler's 90 minutes of drama.

But more deeply, their reactions showed how much the New York Philharmonic cares for New York, and how proud they were to be part of a meta healing moment. To the Philharmonic musicians I say “thank you” for completing my healing and for giving me a musical experience I will simply never, ever forget.