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L.B. Symphony Goes Up Against Mahler's Seventh


Mahler's Seventh is the strange one. It is the symphony that Mahler conductors usually get around to last, and until a few years ago many never did bother with it. Even now, encountering it in performance is a rare enough occurrence to have made the Long Beach Symphony programming of it Saturday night at Terrace Theater noteworthy.

It was, however, less of the scarcity factor than the challenges that the symphony presents that proved noteworthy on this occasion. The symphony, five movements containing some of Mahler's most hair-raising and most delicate music, challenges the technical ensemble of any orchestra as much as it does the interpretive scope of a conductor. And neither the Long Beach Symphony nor its music director, JoAnn Falletta, are as practiced in Mahler as are the usual interpreters of this problematic symphony.

Indeed, it could be argued that Mahler's Seventh has come into its own only in recent years precisely because only now conductors and orchestras have finally had the experience with Mahler to know what to make of the extreme contradictions in a score that was written in 1905 but that already boldly presages surrealism.

The symphony, which lasts well over an hour and makes a whole program in itself, begins dark and menacing. It has two insinuating nostalgic inner movements of what Mahler called night music in which things go awry in small, unsettling ways, as things can at night. Those surround a schizophrenic scherzo that flies off the handle. The finale, in which the composer hopes to see the light of day, incongruously heads off as a wild romp so suddenly upbeat as to seem downright dangerous.

Thus far the conductors who have most successfully found the essences of a symphony have, themselves, been contradictory and extreme. Leonard Bernstein, in his last years, uncovered in every brilliantly scored bar terrible, frightening ironies. Most touching for him was the sybaritic last movement, which he turned into a elemental and losing struggle for normalcy.

The other extreme has been Boulez's approach found on a recent Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Cleveland Orchestra. Boulez, who knows well his Breton, lets the music's bizarreness be, creating not the anxiety of a mind trying to grapple with emotions so much as one trying to cope with modernity, with the sense that all the comforts of 19th century thought and belief were being overthrown. For him the last movement becomes the triumph of the new.

Falletta led a performance that fell somewhere in between these extremes. She allowed the music to be wild and she allowed it its great swatches of romantic sentiment. She was always aware of the extraordinary sensuality of the music but also of its ability to throw that all in your face. Sense of line never slackened, but she also seemed in control of this uncontrollable symphony almost to a fault.

She, of course, had little choice. This is a big project for any orchestra and all the greater undertaking for one, like the Long Beach Symphony, which doesn't meet full time. By keeping the approach broad, Falletta managed to keep the ensemble together. There were no train wrecks. Horns did strain at times, and strings lost good intonation by the end. And many details were smudged. But it mostly went right, if too much for the sake of a coherence the symphony never had to begin with.

Surrealism did, however, find its way into the standing ovation. Although there were a few bravos shouted, the clapping was mostly muted, polite, unenthusiastic. Like so many other listeners who have grappled with this weird but magnificent symphony, the Long Beach audience seemed to sense that there was greatness in this music, but unsure quite where it lay.

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