NEW YORK When the London Symphony Orchestra finished playing Mahlers 4th Symphony, I felt the tears well up. Live performance can do that to me.
Part of it was the sheer drama of Mahler interpreted in Avery Fisher Hall by the veteran conductor Bernard Haitink who, with his tousled gray locks and knowing baton, exuded the gravitas of a wise cleric someone whod been around long enough to build on the mysteries of Mahler, not just cram him down our throats.
Part of it was the experience of being at Columbia University for a 10-day classical music and opera binge as one of two dozen participants in an institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Concerts, lectures, discussions with musicians, backstage tours, writing workshops with the New York Times classical music staff, even a singing lesson the days and nights blurred together into a cocoon of glorious music.
And part of it was simply the act of occupying the same hall as these accomplished musicians as we shared what I consider to be one of the crowning achievements of human culture: 90-plus impeccably trained artists melded into one musical organism.
I wasnt listening to an audio-perfect CD or digitally engineered radio broadcast. The music was in the moment, possibly imperfect but unfolding in the excitement of raw, real time.
I attended the institute not as a music expert but as a lover of the arts and as someone who was looking for a way to share my nontechnical viewpoint about classical music with people from all walks of life.
During my 10-day stint, I did learn a lot about the so-called expert stuff, from music history and performance practices to the structure of Mahlers 4th. But what I really took away from the experience was the conviction that classical music is something you feel. And that when you write about it, as I do, you have to find a way to express that feeling. Otherwise you risk spouting the dusty-dry musings of a specialist.
One of our speakers was the noted musicologist Michael Beckerman of New York University, one of the worlds most prominent scholars of Dvorak, who had fun in a roomful of critics by poking fun at the notion of, well, critics.
I think there is arguably as much nonsense spewed authoritatively about classical music as anything else, he said. There aint nobody who really knows this stuff.
Look at it this way, Beckerman told us: As a critic writing an advance story on a concert or evaluating a performance, even if youre a classically trained musician, theres someone else in that audience who knows more than you do someone who knows every word of that opera, every note in the clarinet score, every detail about the composers life.
What that critic can do, however, he said, is write an honest, from-the-heart appraisal. You can certainly include knowledgeable details about a work, but dont forget its emotional impact.
I thought about his charge while listening to the Mahler. The composer famously resisted efforts to explain the meaning of his 4th Symphony, going so far as refusing to reveal the names of the movements. One title we do know, of the second movement, was originally designated by the composer Friend Death Strikes Up the Dance, and it features the concertmaster playing an instrument tuned up one tone an eerie, ominous premonition.
From there, Mahler unleashes the full angst of human mortality or at least the obsession with it. The rousing third movement, with the French horns leading a brassy charge of invincibility, swells with an aching grandeur that suggested to me, at least, the way in which humanity has always built the promise of an afterlife with single-minded determination.
He set the final vocal movement to a collection of folk poetry that had obsessed him more than 10 years. One of those poems, Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life), conveys a childs sense of heaven. But even the youthful naivete of the text which has as much to do with all the tasty treats available in eternity as anything else alternates with sharp, assertive bursts from the orchestra. Haitink, who had judiciously meted out the raw Mahlerian sound in the third movement, slammed home the shrill, pungent interludes between the sweetness of the vocal passages.
Heaven is oh so sweet, yes, but what are these moments of harshness? Its enough to send a seeker of enlightenment scurrying back to the philosophy books.
As I wiped my eyes, I thought of something that Beckerman had told us.
You simply have to regard music with passion, he said. Thats enough.
Hes so right. And as I cover classical music for The Bee in addition to the other arts, Ill try never to forget it.
The columnist can be reached at dmunro@ fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6373.