Part of the wonder of classical music, for me, is attending its performance live—the small meal before, the glass of wine, the movement of people into the lobbies and the hall, the mix of high and low dress, the anticipation as the musicians tune their instruments, and then the electricity as the conductor floats onstage.
The forced attentiveness.
Last night, I went to Lincoln Center to hear The New York Philharmonic perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. I am, I admit, not an enormous Gustav Mahler fan. His music often strikes me as a bit ponderous. Except for his Ninth. Perhaps because it was written after the death of his daughter and with the knowledge that he too would soon die of heart disease, it is filled with grief and, as well, the wonder of being alive. Mahler died only a year after completing this, his last, symphony. The first and last movements are my favorites. Who doesn't tear up in those final moments? I recently downloaded the Ninth performed by The Berliner Philharmonica and conducted by Claudio Abbado. It might be my favorite, although many people recommend Leonard Bernstein’s 1979 performance. Of course, there are many many versions. While I haven’t heard them all, I haven’t yet heard one I hated.
Why am I writing this? Granted, Mahler’s Ninth always bears a return. But, it wasn’t just Mahler that sends me to the page. Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic’s Music Director opened the evening with the New York premiere of a 13-minute contemporary piece written by the young British composer Thomas Ades called Polaris. After the Ades pieces, Gilbert could have thrown up his hands and said, that's all for tonight folks. I would have been cool with that and felt, honestly, that I'd received more, more than my money’s worth. It was terrific.
I have always had difficulty with music as metaphor, particularly in the sense of the concrete. Music represents, evokes abstract emotion for me—joy, ecstasy, pain, sorrow,…but I am less successful at finding concrete image in the notes. I suppose I am too tied to words. I need the lyrics. Funnily enough, even lyrics in a language I don’t understand. Opera, for instance, paints pictures for me. There is something about the human voice, on the page, in the air.
But last night, the Polaris did it for me. Of course, the title refers to the North Star, or Pole Star, around which other stars appear to rotate, giving me a first image. The symphony notes also speak of navigation, suggesting the sea and some kind of voyage. But it was the music, with its recurrent theme, the departure and return to what seemed a single note (the star?), the turbulence, the interplay of a bass section set apart from the orchestra and the woodwinds like two people separated by at least an ocean, and their final reunion, that convinced. I felt as if I had been on a voyage. I felt the cold North Sea wind on my face. I heard the creak of a ship. I tasted salt! It was glorious.
Ades conceived Polaris for performance with a projected visual work by the Israeli film- and video-maker Tal Rosner. The work has been given with projections arranged in different ways, but it is also written so that it can be presented as a purely musical piece, which is what Gilbert chose to present to New York. You can see the images and a brief clip of the combined orchestral/visual presentation on the web. The film images are beautiful, but Ades’ music doesn’t require them. Perhaps, in fact, the voyage is better with images of one’s own. Judge for yourself.