Charlie, we hardly knew ye

Dutoit’s masterful Mahler Third

6 minute read
Dutoit: Energy is no substitute.
Dutoit: Energy is no substitute.
An out-of-town visitor called us shortly before he and his wife arrived last week.

"Hey, I see the Orchestra is doing Mahler's Third on Saturday. Want to go?"

I really have been out of touch, haven't I? Normally, a performance of that work would loom on my mental horizon for months, but in this case, my reaction was: "The Orchestra is in town? And they're still performing? OK, I'll see what's available."

Come to think of it, yes, I did dimly remember that the season was going to close with Charles Dutoit conducting this, the longest of the Mahler symphonies.

So I checked it out. The cheapest seats available for Saturday's performance were outrageously priced— more than the most expensive Phillies tickets. Out of the question, I thought. But then I remembered an option I've never before exercised: rush tickets! Bring a portable bird-watching chair and a book, and the Philadelphia Orchestra will, in effect, pay you about $70 per hour to sit comfortably and read in the Kimmel Center lobby.

Bernstein's heyday

No single concert experience changed my life more than hearing Leonard Bernstein's performance of the Mahler's Second in 1960, the year he started America's great Mahler revival. Like many of my music geek cohorts in New York, I immediately became a Mahler groupie, listening to the symphonies over and over, attending Bruno Walter's legendary performance of Das Lied von der Erde paired with Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony (accompanied by the occasional gentle rumble of the A-train passing beneath Carnegie Hall), and devouring Alma Mahler's self-serving, gossipy accounts of Mahler's fascination with death.

Our companions on the Kimmel Center's rush ticket line brought back those days; two particularly quirky-looking 40- or 50-somethings, dressed, I would guess, without the monitoring of a significant other, alternately discussing various conspiracy theories about the Phillies' recent troubles and Mahler's dispute with Sibelius in Helsinki. ("Mahler had a dispute with Sibelius?" I asked myself.)

"Umm, excuse me for intruding," I asked, "but are you aware that your shirt is inside out?"

With mortified panic: "Oh no! Is there a bathroom around?"

"Maybe you'd better stay in line and get your ticket first," my companion advised.

Gloomy portents

After buying our tickets and having dinner with our wives (who claimed not to be interested in Mahler, although they ended up wandering around Verizon Hall watching the first few movements on HD TV), my friend and I found ourselves at 8 p.m. in our $10 seats in the next-to-last row of the third tier.

The overhead lights in our section weren't functioning, so we couldn't read our programs. Far, far away, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope, we watched the 45 members of the American Boychoir and the 53 women of the Philadelphia Singers file in and sit down all at once as the members of the Orchestra began to trickle on stage. And I surely have not counted Charles Dutoit among Mahler's great interpreters.

"I guess you get what you pay for," I sighed to myself.

Wrong! Wrong on all counts!

Eschenbach's eccentricities

I had last heard Mahler's Third when Christoph Eschenbach conducted it in Philadelphia several years ago. It's a work well suited to Eschenbach's temperament— or, as the Inquirer critic Peter Dobrin might put it, a work easily victimized by Eschenbach's eccentricities. Indeed, as I remember it, Eschenbach's performance was, typically, one of extremes: exaggerated dramatic gestures, violent changes in tempo, perhaps all at the expense of overall cohesion.

Although the Third is enormous and contains several of Mahler's most satisfying grandiose cataclysms and triumphs, it takes place, despite its scale, mostly in the same gossamer world as Mahler's Fourth. Although its subject is nothing less than the entire physical and spiritual cosmos, it's essentially a chamber symphony.

But to tell the truth, I hadn't fully understood this aspect of the work until Dutoit's calm, spacious, evenly paced reading of it revealed it to me at this concert. I deeply regret whatever smugly patronizing remarks I may have written about Dutoit in past articles. (Somehow, Dutoit and the Orchestra have carried on anyway.) This performance displayed a magisterial conductor giving a world"“class orchestra a chance to show itself off at its best. You can't ask for more.

Acoustics: solved!

Well, no, actually, in Verizon Hall, I've always asked in vain for one more thing: acoustics worthy of a Mahler symphony. Not on this occasion: the sound in those remote seats is the sound I've sought and never found anywhere else in Verizon Hall.

It retains the crystalline clarity that is the hall's greatest virtue wherever I've sat before. The tiniest details were plainly audible; even the "sch" of the marvelous mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura's "O Mensch!" that opens the mysterious fourth movement reached my ear like a feather over all that distance.

And, for once, through some acoustic magic I don't understand (if there is electronic amplification involved, it's completely undetectable), the brass climaxes had that sensual blow-you-out-of-your-seat grandeur that I (and many others) have always found lacking in this concert hall.

Until Bernstein introduced Mahler to New York audiences 50 years ago, Mahler's music was hardly known in the U.S., and many concertgoers then (like today) found it insufferably bombastic and long-winded. How things have changed! Saturday's performance, even at the Orchestra's highest premium prices, appeared to be almost completely sold out, and the audience responded with the unbridled enthusiasm this performance deserved.

And now, Yannick

Ironically, the news of Yannick Nézet-Séguin's appointment as the Orchestra's new permanent music director arrived within 12 hours of my Charles Dutoit conversion experience. Just this morning I spent an hour listening to Marty Moss Coane interview Dobrin and David Patrick Stearns; the issue for them, it seems, is not whether Yannick, as they persist in calling him"“ I don't recall Sawallisch being referred to as "Wolfgang" in the press"“ will bring the same depth of musical gravitas to the Orchestra as Dutoit and his last several predecessors, but whether he exudes the star quality to fill seats with his boyish enthusiasm.

Perhaps he does. Perhaps that is what matters these days (see Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles). Eventually, though, Nézet-Séguin will take on a Mahler symphony. Then we'll see what sort of conductor we really have.♦

To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

Philadelphia Orchestra: Mahler, Third Symphony. Mihoko Fujimura, mezzo-soprano; Charles Dutoit, conductor. June 10-12, 2010 at Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Sts. (215) 893-1955 or

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