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Rambling About Tanglewood: Mahler Then, Mahler Now

July 28, 2016 GMT

LENOX, MASS. >> After his abrupt exit from the Bayreuth Festival, Andris Nelsons returns to the Boston Symphony Orchestra podium tomorrow night. He takes up pretty much where he left off last summer — with Mahler.

Last year, it was the monumental Sixth and Eighth symphonies. This year it’s the Ninth, the symphony Mahler wrote after receiving the diagnosis of the heart disease that would take his life a year later. Where the Sixth and Eighth are affirmative, the Ninth fades away into silence at the end in an almost literal farewell to life.

Last year, too, Nelsons did Shostakovich — the Tenth Symphony. The shattering performance, as recorded earlier in the year in Symphony Hall, won him and the BSO a Grammy for their first recording together.


Their projected cycle of the 15 Shostakovich symphonies on Deutsche Grammophon, bearing the title “Under Stalin’s Shadow,” continued in May with the release of a set combining the Fifth, Eighth and Ninth symphonies, plus excerpts from his little-known incidental music to “Hamlet.” In these powerful performances, the Fifth, in effect, defies Stalin, the Ninth thumbs its nose at him.

Having grown up in Soviet Latvia and studied conducting in St. Petersburg, Nelsons has said he feels a personal, even mystical connection to Shostakovich, who “was rather naively shy like myself.”

There was nothing shy about Mahler but the two composers have much in common. Both extended the symphonic form beyond romanticism’s already broadened limits. Both grappled with the question of death. Both had an all but neurotic intensity. Both displayed a mordant sense of humor.

Shostakovich was actually a lifelong devotee of Mahler. Mahler’s “The Song of the Earth,” with its use of a male and a female solo voice, was the model for Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony. The story goes that while Shostakovich was in a hospital during his last days, he listened to a recording of Mahler’s cycle until he had it by heart.

In 11 songs, the Shostakovich Fourteenth mourns the death — mostly untimely — of friends. It is coming to Tanglewood on Monday, Aug. 8, in a performance by Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra with TMC alumni Dawn Upshaw and Sanford Sylvan as soloists. The day before, Sunday, Aug. 7, the BSO will perform Mahler’s heroic First Symphony, bracketing his symphonic output with the Ninth, and with it the trajectory of his life.

Like Shostakovich, the Mahler Ninth has a personal connection for Nelsons. He made his BSO debut with it in 2011 as an emergency substitute for James Levine. The engagement led to his appointment as BSO music director.


Miracle man

Sometimes, it seems, miracles do happen.

BSO assistant conductor Ken-David Masur took over two programs from Christoph von Dohnanyi, and got seemingly opposite results. With the BSO, the ideas were there but the performances didn’t completely come together. With the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra two nights later, he led a powerful Beethoven “Eroica.”

Obviously, rehearsal time made a difference. With the BSO, Masur had two rehearsals for a meaty program of Ives, Strauss and Tchaikovsky, including Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” with Renee Fleming as soloist. The New York Times reported that Fleming was available only for the dress rehearsal of her role — hardly a way to guarantee a successful outcome. With the student orchestra, Masur enjoyed a longer rehearsal schedule.

But maybe something else was happening. Hard to say for sure, but Masur seemed to establish greater rapport with the students — he himself was a TMC student only four years before — than with the senior orchestra. Perhaps with students he was just Ken-David Masur and not the son of Kurt, who had conducted the BSO for many years.


Invariably, part of the audience for Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique,” thinking the performance is over, breaks into an ovation at the end of the tumultuous march movement. This year’s enthusiasts fell even deeper into the trap, staging a noisy standing ovation through most of the Shed.

Masur, the conductor, got the final movement going, but not without a lot of tittering and chattering as the audience realized it had been duped. Even so, another attempt at an ovation broke out midway through the finale.

Worse, the same applause-happy audience interrupted the Strauss songs with clapping after each — this in music that depends on a continuous mood of serenity in the face of death.

The standing ovation has become a meaningless, knee-jerk fixture of concert life. Just about everybody gets one. But for occasions like the Strauss songs, an announcement at the start could request the audience to please withhold applause until the end.

Ah, silence.


• Danish String Quartet: 8 p.m. Thursday, July 28. Ozawa Hall.

• Boston Symphony Orchestra with conductor Andris Nelsons and pianist Jonathan Biss: Mozart and Mahler. 8 p.m. Friday, July 29. The Shed.

• BUTI Young Artists Orchestra with conductor Paul Haas: Mahler, Symphony No. 6. 2:30 p.m. Saturday, July 30. Ozawa Hall.

• Boston Symphony Orchestra with conductor Andris Nelsons and violinist Augustin Hadelich: Beethoven Symphony No. 7. 8 p.m. Saturday, July 30. The Shed.

• TMC Chamber Music: The New Fromm Players. 10 a.m. Sunday, July 31. Ozawa Hall.

• BUTI Young Artists Wind Ensemble with conductor H. Robert Reynolds: Works by Grainger, Holst, Strauss, Wagner and BUTI alumni. 2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 31. Ozawa Hall.

• TMC Orchestra with conductor Andris Nelsons and pianist Paul Lewis: The Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert, an all-Brahms program. 2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 31. The Shed.

• Chick Corea Trio featuring Christian McBride and Brian Blade: 8 p.m. Sunday, July 31. Ozawa Hall.

• TMC vocal recital: 8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 1. Ozawa Hall.

• Tanglewood on Parade: Day-long event including concerts, hands-on activities for children and tours starting at 2 p.m. Day ends with Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and fireworks after the 8 p.m. concert at the Shed. Tuesday, Aug. 2.