This week, I have decided to shift gears and focus on a performance of a well-known yet controversial piece of classical music. On Tuesday February 22nd, the London Symphony Orchestra made its Kimmel Center debut with a performance of Mahler’s seventh symphony, often labeled the “Symphony of the Night”. The work is semi-programmatic, and is intended to depict the transitions occurring in nature from dusk to night to morning. The concert has generally received luke-warm reviews from concertgoers and critics alike. However, it is important to note that this work is considered to be one of Mahler’s most controversial pieces, and has never been generally accepted as an essential piece of symphonic repertoire.
Mahler’s seventh symphony is enigmatic to say the least. It is considered unconventional due to the fact that the individual movements sound as though they may belong to different symphonies altogether. This element, though perhaps seemingly problematic, is intended to be tied together through skillful conducting. The varied tempos of the works could be used to great cathartic advantage, an element which Leonard Bernstein, an early Mahler advocate, seemed to have mastered early in his career as a conductor. For this performance, the LSO was conducted by its current chief, Valery Gergiev.
Gergiev, known perhaps more for his haggard appearance and unorthodox conducting methods than for his skills as a conductor, had his own interpretations of the individual movements in mind. Despite the varied opinions of his stylistic decisions, Gergiev is certainly a skilled conductor. One look at the concert schedule of the LSO also demonstrates his commitment to performing Mahler’s works. The LSO is currently performing about half of the Mahler symphonies on their current tour this year. On this particular night, the seventh symphony was given a unique treatment. The piece was mainly unique in terms of tempo and style, elements that are malleable in the hands of the conductor alone. The individual movements of this work were given very specific tempo markings by Mahler. However, one of the main complaints of this performance was the fact that each movement seemed to be performed too quickly. Besides the fact that the movements may have felt rushed, the increased tempo also skewed the individuality of the movements overall. The normally all-encompassing emotional nature of Mahler’s symphonic repertoire quickly became redundant by the end of the second movement. The piece seemed to pick up steam as it moved forward, and the finale went off surprisingly well. Unfortunately, this is not enough to consider a performance a resounding success. This is especially true of a work which focuses on the transitional elements of its movements.
The performance was not an overall disappointment by any means. The music remained inspiring and beautiful, and one can guarantee that only a trained musical ear would be even the slightest bit perturbed. The London Symphony Orchestra is always worth experiencing, especially when it is their debut performance at a venue as firmly established as the Kimmel Center. At the end of the performance, the Orchestra was given a standing ovation for at least 5 full minutes. Hopefully we can expect to see the LSO again in the near future.