Brian Taylor is a musician and writer. He resides in New York City.

REVIEW: Boston Symphony Tackles Mahler's Fifth at Carnegie Hall

REVIEW: Boston Symphony Tackles Mahler's Fifth at Carnegie Hall


NOVEMBER 19, 2018

The trumpet took center stage at Carnegie Hall on Monday night when the Boston Symphony Orchestra played a rich pairing of two Viennese works. Both HK Gruber's Aerial, a concerto for solo trumpet, and Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony, are heady, eventful journeys. Andris Nelsons led the BSO in this well-balanced, if somber, evening.

HK Gruber sang in the Vienna Boys Choir as a child, and is now known not only as a fiercely creative composer, but as a cabaret singer and performer. Aerial was composed in 1999 for trumpeter Håkan Hardengerger especially, and we were lucky enough to have him as soloist this evening. (Maybe he's the only trumpeter capable of performing the unique effects called for in this two movement exercise in versatility and boundless imagination.)

The piece begins with Hardengerger playing sequences of long tones employing "multiphonics," making the trumpet play multiple tones at once, and sometimes singing into the trumpet while doing this. The opening teeters between puzzlement at unfamiliar, buzzing timbres, and the sense that we were catching glimpses of some other, haunting, aural realm. It was almost like the Also sprach Zarathustra fanfare (famously used in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey) was collapsing inward.

As the piece develops, the listener is taken on a roller-coaster ride (perhaps, given the title, a flight-related metaphor would be more appropriate). Throughout, Gruber's tonal harmonic language, only occasionally dipping its toes too far into outright jazziness, is fresh and unpredictable. The harmonies inhale and exhale, like the trumpet itself, with anticipation.

Watching instrumentalists grapple with non-traditional techniques can be a tedious affair, and Gruber too often has the orchestra wait idly on a chord, while Hardengerger situates himself with a different trumpet or mute. But his virtuosity is unimpeachable, and he brings heartfelt expression to even the strange, primitive calls on the cow horn. The use of cow horn seems more gimmicky than musically necessary. However, such digressions are justified by the music's whimsical, almost cinematic, depiction of an aerial viewpoint, like a camera fitted on a helicopter swooping over an ever changing, vibrant landscape. Now a mountaintop, now a farm, now a city!

Above: Composer HK Gruber  Top: Andris Nelsons conducting the BSO at Carnegie Hall. Photo credit:   Steve J. Sherman

Above: Composer HK Gruber

Top: Andris Nelsons conducting the BSO at Carnegie Hall. Photo credit: Steve J. Sherman

It was a fitting appetizer to the evening's main course, Mahler's monumental Fifth, a formidable journey through the human emotional experience, and one of Mahler's most challenging symphonies. Simultaneously expansive and dense, the three part, five-movement symphony is considered a turning-point work in Mahler's output. His first four symphonies involved the inspiration of vocal music, and leaned on programmatic ideas. But following a brush with death, falling in love, and perhaps, an increasing interest in counterpoint and the music of Bach and Beethoven, his composing took a new approach. 

BSO principal Thomas Rolfs lended character to the ominous trumpet solo that begins the Fifth, commencing the symphony’s emotional voyage. The purple, post-romantic, art nouveau stylings in which Mahler functioned at the turn of the last century are here filtered through an abstract, polyphonic musical stringency. 

Nelsons led a workmanlike, at times ponderous, account of the score, but one not without magical moments. The string section sounded terrific, maintaining a clean, silvery sound while negotiating Mahler's oddly shaped phrases and myriad instructions. The cello section brought sublime expression to their turn at the mournful, long-lined melody in the first movement's funeral march. The famously lovesick Adagietto, a slow movement for strings and harp only, was rapturous and yearning.

Tonight, the brass section triumphed above all others, the horns conquering the most challenging of peaks. The third movement, an energetic, fast scherzo, features singing, high cries from the horn, and toward the movement's end, as the driving music becomes melancholy — reflecting an unmistakable feeling of regret (before suddenly revving up again to a quick punctuation) — the BSO horns soared.

Nelsons paces the piece carefully, and the orchestra plays with rhythmic confidence. I wonder about the intonation when the oboes and clarinets play together; sometimes there is a strident color. In any event, the BSO has an unapologetically Northeastern personality. Overt, unhesitating, transparent. (As opposed to, say, Chicago's beautified, swathed politeness.)

Mahler famously said that "The symphony is a world; it must contain everything." The Fifth's everything is that of the tortured, yet fulfilled, soul. Its development from the despair of defeat to the jocular, towering, hard-earned finale is a feat for any orchestra. Even in this bottom-heavy, rueful interpretation, it is impactful, shaking the rafters of the house, and taking the audience's breath away. 

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