It's hard to believe that the audience attending the premiere of Mahler's First symphony on November 20, 1889 (Budapest) scrunched their noses and basically said "what the hell was that?". On April 2nd, 2016 at Helzberg Hall, the audience leapt to their feet with thunderous applause and showered Maestro Stern and the musicians of the Kansas City Symphony with a standing ovation at the conclusion of their performance of the Mahler First. In 1889, even Mahler's wife Alma admitted that she herself did not initially like the First Symphony. Mahler expressed this frustration to her in a letter saying that when he conducted the symphony, it "sent shivers down my spine. Damn it all, where do people keep their ears and their hearts if they can't hear that?" Well, we do hear it now Herr Mahler. And the breathtaking musicianship of the Kansas City Symphony under the baton of Michael Stern made it possible.
Among the records my dad gave me as a child to begin my classical music journey was, believe it or not, a scratched Mahler First. I was 5. It's my humble opinion that Mahler's First is his most "enjoyable" symphony, as well as his most accessible (the program notes made the same statement...I totally agree). If someone wants to listen to a Mahler symphony for the first time, I would suggest the First. It is certainly a formidable work. It's known as the "Titan" symphony. It's about an hour long. Thematically and sonically speaking, it is challenging, rich, and sophisticated. But it isn't twinged with the analysis-paralysis of life, love, loss and death to the degree that began to emerge in his second and subsequent symphonies. 2-9 are all brilliant for sure. And I can say for sure that the First is not my "favorite" Mahler symphony...that would be the Fifth for me. So back to April 2nd...it was easy to jump up after the symphony concluded and celebrate the brilliance of the work itself and the performance of the KCS. But you can't do that after the other Mahler symphonies.....they are so emotionally draining that it takes a bit of time to recuperate before your hands can move to a clap and for your legs to be able to support your body. Which is the beauty of the First....you can jump right up. It's the musical equivalent of a tequila that does not give you a hangover.
The symphony starts with deafening silence....unfortunately there were more than the usual number of coughing-hacking-TB sufferers in attendance tonight. Mr. Stern waited as long as he could to let this subside, which was longer than usual. But necessary. The strings begin with an almost sub-audible harmonic "A". It's hard to hear it at first. One feels it more. It creates an effect...dawn...the earth coming to life. Later, the clarinet sounds a perfect fourth (D-A) as the cuckoo bird singing to greet the sun. (cuckoos sing major thirds, but not Mahler's cuckoos). From here and through the end of the symphony we are treated to songs, dances, sounds of nature, yodeling, Viennese cafe life, a slow "funeral march", (Frere Jacques in minor key), and a brilliant, climactic crescendo at the end.
Mahler scored this work for a massive orchestra. Something like 100 musicians...much larger than the Mozart that preceded Mahler on this concert. I was very happy to see 8 double basses on stage...come on...its all about the bass, right? And, there is even a bass solo too (start of the third movement). Two sets of timpani, tons of other assorted percussion, four trumpets, three trombones and eight french horns. It was a glorious sound. Mahler scored some of the trumpets to be off stage to great effect. He also asks the eight horns to raise their bells at one point, and for the horn players to stand for the finale so they can be heard above everyone else. Wow! We find ourselves in the key of F minor midway through the final movement. "How is this going to end?" we begin to wonder. Mahler of course has that figured out, and takes us triumphantly back to D major, ending the finale with 2 D's in octaves. (This always takes me right to the opening of the third movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in my head because that work ends ends it's opening statement with the same exact D octave punctuation. Brilliant).
The first piece of the concert was the Mozart Piano Concerto number 27 (1791). Benjamin Grosvenor was the soloist. He is only 23 years old and yet he has the touch and discipline of a much more seasoned pianist. Big observation: Helzberg Hall is made for Mozart. Period. I noticed this the first time I heard Mozart played here a few years ago. His music just seems to soar here. I think the acoustics of this hall are magnificent regardless of the composer being played but Mozart's ghost seems to live here somehow. Some observations: no clarinet. small orchestra (especially compared to Mahler), constant trading and sharing of musical phrases between each section which is VISIBLE, and fun to watch, tough riffs for the flutes and oboes in the third movement, especially doubling and repeating the piano's riff, and the piano on stage has a wonderful, full, rich tone. Every note was crisp and clear, at any dynamic. This may be as much in part due to Grosvenor's technique as the piano itself. And lastly, Grosvenor spent as much time looking at the orchestra as he did the piano or the conductor. He was clearly having fun and sharing the moment "in the moment" with his fellow musicians. I looked at my notes a few days after the concert and saw that I had written that the Mozart seemed more like a symphony with a piano rather than a piano backed by a symphony. I'll stand by that. He treated us to an encore of Frederico Mompou's The Fountain and the Clock. It is gorgeous. Have a listen.