Haunted by Mahler

Mahlerby Dad

I’ve been haunted by Mahler. For a couple weeks now. Not that this is a bad thing; it’s been a haunting in the best sense of the word. Not by Mahler himself, of course. By his music. His 2nd symphony. Not just any performance of the piece… and I’ve heard many. Some favorite recordings: the Concertgebouw with both Chailly and Jansons; Abbado with Chicago, Vienna, and Lucerne; Blomstedt and San Francisco.  Among the live performances I’ve seen, Dohnányi with Cleveland at Severance stands out (although not for musical reasons; but I’ll save that humorous story for another post). But none were as memorable, or moving — or haunting — as the one led by Gerhardt Zimmermann on the CSO‘s second MasterWorks concert of the current season on November 4th. How, and why, have I been “haunted” ever since?

It’s been the first first thing I hear in my mind’s ear almost every morning, the last thing almost every night, and pretty much the only music I’ve heard every moment in between (that I’m not listening to something else). It’s not been any particular movement… all 5 have been on virtual shuffle mode in my brain’s little “mp3” player. And it’s not been an interpretation by Abbado that’s been rattling around up there; not Chailly’s, not Blomstedt’s. It’s been Gerhardt Zimmermann’s. And the sound, not of the Concertgebouw or the Cleveland, but of the Canton Symphony, Lucille BeerChristine Brandes, and a chorus of over 220 amateur but well-prepared singers.

Yes… the performance was actually that good. Tom Wachunas expresses it much better than I ever could in his review, but suffice it to say this was a truly remarkable performance on all counts. Gerhardt Zimmermann’s take on the piece, and the musicians’ realization of it, was nothing short of extraordinary. I would even say it was almost ideal, but then that’s just a bit subjective, isn’t it?

But why has it been haunting me? No doubt one reason is that it’s been a constant, nagging reminder that I need to finally finish this post. It’s been an incredibly difficult one to write, mainly because — for once — there’s so much I want to say… about this piece, this performance, this orchestra, and this conductor. Normally I just let Callum do the talking, and for good reason. And believe me, he also has a lot to say about this concert (and he definitely will in an upcoming post). But to keep this to some sort of reasonable length, you’re stuck with me for now. I apologize in advance, and realize that this post may have just lost every reader other than my wife… and maybe even her!

But this is far from the first time that a CSO performance led by Zimmermann has made this kind of lasting impression on me. In fact, there’s little doubt in my mind that I would not have quite the life-long love for great music if it weren’t for growing up in Canton, with the opportunity to see him conduct the CSO on a regular basis; to hear the music brought to life in such an unfailingly vivid, masterful, and always natural way. As I briefly mentioned in my first post a little over a year ago, practically every work that I heard the CSO play under Zimmermann’s direction instantly became a life-long favorite. But “favorite” doesn’t really capture it. Those pieces became what I’d call “comfort music” the same way a mother’s home cooking becomes comfort food. It never fails… any time I need a mood lift, any one of those pieces is sure to fill the bill.

As I’ve also mentioned before (in the same post), growing up going to their concerts, I thought the CSO and Maestro Zimmermann were just the greatest. Now don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t naive enough to think they were actually on the level of a Cleveland, a Berlin, a Philly, or even a Cinci. But I still thought they were simply the greatest thing imaginable in our little slice of the musical universe… far better than anyone would ever expect or could even hope.

And then I moved away to college to study music. I studied conducting with Robert Spano for a couple years (and learned more from him than probably the rest of my courses combined). And I started to wonder while I was away: Had I idealized the CSO and Maestro Z?  Would I go back home after getting “educated” as a typically puffed-up university grad, return to Umstattd Hall, and realize they really weren’t as good as I remembered?

Not a chance. Just the opposite, in fact. I thought they sounded even better than ever (which in fact they probably did). Then I thought maybe that impression would dull with time after repeated listening. Again, not by a long shot. I ended up reviewing every one of their concerts for The Repository for about 5 seasons, and not a single performance ever disappointed. My respect and admiration for Gerhardt Zimmermann’s musicianship and leadership only grew over time.

Then I got married, moved away again, and eventually took a job up near Cleveland. The Cleveland Orchestra became our “hometown orchestra.” My wife and I started attending TCO concerts on a regular basis, and then began volunteering in their retail stores at Severance and Blossom. We started taking Callum to their Severance concerts when he was 2, and he was absolutely transfixed. It was one of the few times he would sit still. Holly and I were at Severance when Muti (her favorite; no offense to Maestro Z) visited with the Vienna Phil… an unforgettable evening.

Then I started working for the orchestra, managing those two stores. I got to listen to their every rehearsal right from my office, which was just across the hall from the Severance stage. The Szell library was right next door. I had a “front row seat,” at least aurally, when every visiting pianist would practice on Szell’s own piano, just on the other side of my office wall. After hearing that legendary orchestra day after day in such an intimate way, surely my impression of the CSO and its music director would suffer in comparison.

But yet again, not in the least. At every concert, and every rehearsal, I continue to marvel at this orchestra and its conductor. And it’s the whole musical package that amazes. It’s not just the general level of musicianship, which continues to astound, month after month. It’s not just superb intonation or precision of ensemble (yet with flexibility and expressive freedom), or any of those relatively tangible qualities of a fine orchestra. It’s so many things, not the least of which is Zimmermann’s conception of every piece he conducts.

However… this post is already too long, despite not touching on so many facets of this piece and program that are worthy of comment.  So — if anyone is still reading — I’m mercifully going to break off at this point. Stay tuned for “Part 2” with Callum’s comments (about both the concert and rehearsal), coming sometime soon!

standing O for Mahler 2

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