Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer
The noise-makers were out again Thursday evening for Maestro Andrew Litton: the super-sneezer timing an entry with the timpani in the soft beginning of Mahler’s “‘Titan’ Symphony,” and then the dogs and a few of the others.
But at the end of the evening, which included communication with Mendelssohn and Mahler, the audience walked out amazed at the wonder. It was the amazing wonder of a symphony orchestra so well led and so well informed, and of an artist as tuned to the gods as Anne Akiko Meyers, the master violinist who has made such a mark with her global performances of Mendelssohn’s esteemed Violin Concerto in E Minor.
She arrived in flowing summer whites and with her Stradivarius, and she quickly acknowledged her readiness. In this concerto, the solo instrument starts right in, and one knew it was going to be special. Not special based on fancy flourish, though there were plenty of chances for that. With Meyers, it was played not for drama, but for delectation; not for flash, but for all that is fine. Her artistry has no need for razzmatazz.
Meyers and Litton focused on substance; they have done that before, recording the piece together a decade ago, and one sensed right away that they knew the way. There was a good bit of sophisticated exchange between orchestra and solo instrument, particularly in their mastery of time and tone — the task was far more intricate than inflecting “it’s your turn now, take it away.”
That the concerto comes together at all, particularly at the demanding speed for both soloist and orchestra, is just short of miraculous. Indeed, this concerto, now considered among the great moments of art in concert music, is as demanding as it is passionate, as difficult as it is memorably melodic.
The concerto moves without pause through three movements — fast-slow-fast — no break for air. Standing tall, with an all-business delivery, Meyers played the bravura passages, the ricochet bowing, the ascending and descending arpeggios. And she navigated a demanding relationship with the orchestra with spot-on, note-perfect, right-minute skill — returning to the quiet razor of E minor, a powerful height.
Beginning quickly again, this time in the fragrance of a solo call from the bassoon, the second movement is delicious, palpable, even sensuous. It means nothing beyond the experience of its beauty and the excellence that renders it. But that is sustaining, and it, in turn, leads toward a lively and concluding movement, including a trumpet fanfare and defiantly accomplished trills from the soloist.
Maybe Meyers can make anything right. Maybe it is that simple. The audience declared its appreciation with standing long applause — and did so again, with whoops and cheers, at the conclusion of the almost hour-long Mahler Symphony, his first.
Thus it was a night of memorable music, and the journey through four heroic Mahler movements brought back theme after theme that the world counts in its holy book of musical ideas.
This first symphony is still another occasion for wonder; Mahler brings the listener to awe with the command — all at once — over so many of the voices, and tones and timings within the astonishment that is the orchestra.
Mahler doesn’t make it easy, but he makes it special, and he makes it work — creating tonal colors through measures that are astonishing to consider. It is a breathtaking work, profound, aspiring, a leap into Mahler’s future — that is still played out today.
Besides his formal genius, Mahler leads toward understandings of essentials, the big ideas, among them the awakening of nature, the joy of being alive, the progression toward death and a shout-out to the heavens. In shorthand, that describes the four movements of his first extended musical drama, which he called a poem.
The symphony surely begins poetically. From a shimmering basis in the violins, the audience hears the first heralds from afar — trumpets off stage, and then another announcement in the timpani, accompanied in the Amphitheater by the super-sneezer.
As an awakening to the first bloom (or with our sneezer, the first pollen), a melody of spring is announced, with the sound of birds and a painting of life emerging. They are signals that something astonishing is about to happen, declarations from solo instruments that build in gaiety to an explosion of life abounding, Maestro Litton opening his arms to the spectacle of it all, including the braying of a mule, sounding notes of modernist irony.
A full-bodied song, a plain and simple strutting, it romantically affirms the folk life of the people in the second movement and builds its dance to a vibrant finish. Mahler builds again and again, and then starts over. He moves into a march of death in the third movement, ironically clashing with a popular folk song, and a klezmer band, too. It is a macabre procession, a ghostly presence clashing with the living, a circus of life, evocatively compelled with forceful direction by Maestro Litton, jumping in place to emphasize the moment.
The third movement ends with a soft stroke from the timpani — one may think an opportunity to catch one’s breath, but it is a faint auger of the crashing fourth and final movement that weaves with powerful assertion the motifs of previous experience.
The finale calls upon the heavens in language as fit as humanly possible. Through the extended movement, Mahler takes on more levels of meaning, strikes of weather and maybe strikes of danger, and then to peace, the tranquility that follows any tumult, where one picks up and begins again.
How it all fits together — these rages and wisps of sound — and comes together at the same time, never mind in the right sound, is the gift of an experience like this and one that should be hugely acknowledged. And the audience did just that: a grateful appreciation to Maestro Litton for his visit and to the CSO that so ably responded to his call.
They were challenging works, with commanding structures, that required an affirmative leadership, directing strong emotional and intellectual presence with a knowing clarity of purpose and delivery — and the skilled composure of a first-rate orchestra.
Anthony Bannon is the executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, a multi-arts presenter on the campus of Buffalo State College. Previously, he was an arts writer for The Buffalo News and director of the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.