NEA Institute Day 8: A Walter Mitty moment.

Hello from the top of The New York Times! We got a tour of the new building today from editors and staff. The view is spectacular. I have much to relate to you. But I'm beyond tired. Walking through the glittering canyon of Times Square completely sucked the life out of me, so I'll keep this short. I know you've been waiting to hear what Times music critic Anthony Tommasini said about my review of the Mahler symphony. Tommasini dropped to his knees and cried, “PLEEEEEEEEZE come and write about classical music in New York!” Not really. He was gentle and direct, and if you're interested, you can read on to see what he and my fellow NEA Fellows actually DID say about my piece. His/their comments are in caps. * * * * Before setting off for a three-week tour of Europe, the Cleveland Orchestra set up camp in New York's Carnegie Hall. A sell-out crowd settled in for one purpose: to concentrate on the sound of one of the best orchestras in the world performing a single piece of music, Mahler's Symphony No. 2. GOOD, DIRECT OPENING WITH NEWSY HOOK, NOT FANCY, PROVIDES CONTEXT AND A FRAME FOR THE STORY, WORKED “PRETTY WELL.” NOT EARTH SHATTERING. Expectations ran high. It didn't hurt that the conductor, Franz Welser-Moest, physically resembles the composer, Gustav Mahler, right down to the Austrian accent. It didn't hurt either for audience members to note that Mahler himself conducted the U.S. premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1908. The conductor took a clinical approach, but the Cleveland Orchestra managed to take listeners on an exhilarating journey nonetheless. THIS IS A FALSE OPPOSITION. BE CAREFUL USING THE WORD “BUT.” “BUT” CAN BE SPUN IN A NEGATIVE WAY. WHAT I MEANT TO SAY – SOMETHING LIKE - “THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA TOOK LISTENERS ON AN EXCITING JOURNEY AND IT WORKED BECAUSE OF THE CONTROLLED APPROACH OF THE CONDUCTOR.” Mahler's Symphony No. 2 is about life, meaning, and hope. It doesn't shy from cosmic grief. The first movement gushed forth with a burst of spray, crashing into a thunderous surge. The floor shook. Cellists dug into their instruments like kayak-ers pushing oars into the waves. Conductor Welser-Moest established a steady flow without plodding. Traditionally, after the twenty-minute-plus first movement, audience members expect a long pause. In this performance, however, hopes for silent reflection on death were dashed by a brief siren and racking coughs. Gustav Mahler treasured silence. For him, summer days in the 1890's meant quiet rambles in the meadows and Austrian woods. His efforts to translate outdoor life into abstract sound echo throughout his Second Symphony, especially in the second movement. It glided by in this performance with sumptuous playing from the Cleveland cellists. Flutist Joshua Smith intoned sweetly, with warmth. The musicians expressed certain passages in a syrupy, sentimental way the composer desired. Until recently, the style had fallen out of fashion. THIS IS ALL “PRETTY GOOD.” Conductor Welser-Moest swooped and dipped. At times he appeared to spin cobwebs. He coaxed phrases from the violins with economical motions. The performance he evoked might have reminded aficionados of recordings by Gilbert Kaplan. Welser-Moest's unusual long-term contract with the Cleveland Orchestra, recently extended to the 2011-12 season, implies the players have great faith in his musicianship. IF I HAD DONE MY HOMEWORK, I MIGHT FIND THERE'S SOME CONTROVERSY ABOUT HIS TENURE IN CLEVELAND. About midway through the symphony, the orchestra's sound muddied. When mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink stood up to sing, she issued a lush, plaintive solo. Fink sang superbly, with feeling. Soprano Malin Harteluis, on the other hand, not only sounded feeble, but she fidgeted. She scootched her chair, scratched her nose, and tilted her head. In a sparkle-studded dress that winked in the light, she distracted. IT SLOWS DOWN A LITTLE HERE. BLAH BLAH BLAH. The final, climatic movements began with a tsunami. Low reeds and brass hinted at an ominous future. Then singers from the Westminster Symphony Choir opened their mouths and offered a quiet hymn. What happened next was wonderful, predictable, and hard to describe without resorting to clichés. It's also the reason fans usually speak of the “Resurrection” Symphony in reverential tones. At the end of Cleveland's performance, audience members shot to their feet and shouted. A octogenarian in the tenth row lifted his cane and waved it back and forth like a flag. TOMMASINI WOULD NOT BE ALLOWED TO REFER TO AN 80 YEAR-OLD. THE WORD “ELDERLY” HAS BECOME PEJORATIVE. HE WOULD END THE PIECE HERE, AFTER “BACK AND FORTH LIKE A FLAG.” A CONCRETE IMAGE. Whether there is life after death didn't matter to those alive in a world of such wonders. THIS LAST SENTENCE IS GRANDIOSE AND SENTIMENTAL. HOW DO I KNOW WHAT OTHERS ARE THINKING? IF IT'S PERSONAL. SAY IT, IF NOT, DON'T. End of essay. If I aspired to be a music critic, I'd be happy with his critique. I don't, but it still made me happy. Tomorrow is the last day. I'm meeting with critic Terry Teachout for another writing workshop, first thing. Then we hear a concert from a pianist named Jeremy Denk. Home Wednesday!


What a grand time you've had!!!

I have kept up with your blog about the NEA Conference even though I haven't commented lately. I'd say you have climbed several giant steps up the ladder you were/are climbing. GOOD FOR YOU!!!!!

It strikes me that, if Christopher does Symphony 101 (excellent for general audiences), what you've experienced is like Music 1,001 or maybe 10,001, even a million and one.

Congratulations again on having achieved the award to go there AND on what you've learned by immersing yourself in it as much as you have.

Maybe see you next week.