“Magical” would not be too strong a word for this event. Knowing that Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was written during the final years of the composer’s life, I had a preconceived idea that I would be spending the better part of two hours listening to a portentous, reaper-haunted piece—which would still have been enjoyable, in its own way. Instead, I found myself listening to a joyous, yet mature and meditative musical celebration of life. I don’t think I could have picked a better piece of music to listen to for my first symphonic concert.
This symphony doesn’t open with a bang but with a whisper; to hear all the various instruments of the San Francisco Symphony quietly emerge out of the silence during the first few minutes was both exhilarating and relaxing at the same time. I was sitting in the balcony, but the incredible sound of Hill Auditorium made every single noise audible with incredible clarity. When the strings floated a high pianissimo note, it sounded like they were sitting only a few feet in front of me; when the brass blasted a powerful fortissimo chord, I felt as though I had fallen into a tuba.
A symphony is an unusual kind of artwork: through the voices of many instruments, one person speaks. Mahler once said that he only composed because he could not express his experiences in words. Of course, the difficulty with an abstract art form like music is that sometimes it is hard to tell exactly what the composer is trying to say. During the first movement, I sometimes found myself concentrating very intensely on the meaning of the piece—“what is Mahler trying to SAY with this melody? WHY did the key change so suddenly?”—but eventually, my left brain settled down and I allowed myself to engage with the music on a less cerebral level.
Naturally, after the final notes of the first movement died away, there was no applause between movements. I understand the reasoning behind this solemn decree: a symphony is a continuous work of art that is meant to be listened to in its entirety, and to applaud between movements would disrupt the continuity of the piece. Basically, clapping between movements “breaks the spell.” Still, at all the operas I’ve attended, people applauded at the end of arias and acts, yet no one would argue that an opera isn’t a continuous work of art. At this concert, instead of applause after every section, I heard the sounds of squeaking seats, fortissimo coughs and tuning violinists, which I thought somewhat distracting as well. Still, maybe keeping all that applause pent up inside was for the best—after the concert finished, the applause went on for so long that conductor Michael Tilson Thomas had to take approximately thirty-seven bows (I’m guesstimating here) before the audience had finished.
The second movement was in the form of a ländler, a type of Austrian folk dance that Mahler would have undoubtedly heard as a kid, growing up as the son of a brewer in a small Austrian village. I loved the numerous instrumental trills during this section, suggesting the yodeling that apparently sometimes accompanies ländler dancing. One of the things that was so cool about this section was how Mahler took what some might consider to be a frivolous dance tune and integrated it into a supposedly “highbrow” classical composition without a second thought. It’s a terrific little mashup that reveals the imaginary line between “classical” music and “pop” music to be very thin—or nonexistent.
The third movement was significantly more aggressive and edgy, with multiple discords piling on top of each other. The mounting tension was briefly broken by a beautiful trumpet melody, before the reverie was shattered by another cavalcade of pointed dissonances and irregular rhythms. This particular movement demonstrated perfectly that classical music can contain astounding noise as well as refined melody. When one looks up “classical music” on YouTube, the first page or so of results is invariably a bunch of videos with titles along the lines of “Relaxing Chillout CLASSICAL MUSIC For Study And Sleep.” I can’t help but think of some hapless student vainly trying to cram for midterms with this feverish and unpredictable piece of music blaring in the background.
The final movement sounded like a slowly-fading farewell from another time. As the strings repeated the final melody over and over again, it also seemed to evoke an unearthly feeling of permanence and contentment. Doing a bit of research on Mahler after the concert, I learned that while he was writing his Ninth Symphony, Mahler was living comfortably in Gilded-Age New York City, having just accepted a job as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. It was a rare time of satisfaction and comfort for the man who once described himself as “always an intruder, never welcomed.” Only a couple of years after the posthumous premiere of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the Archduke of Mahler’s homeland would be assassinated, starting a war that would shatter the era of relative peace and prosperity in which Mahler spent his final days. In the aftermath of the Great War, a new American style of music would begin to gain popularity in a way that rivaled the European classical tradition. With its emphasis on spontaneous improvisation, danceable rhythms, and individual expression, jazz seemed to redefine what music could be—or maybe it was a throwback to the days when Renaissance court musicians would throw a band of random musicians together to play for royal dances, embellishing on the melodies and improvising entire solos off the top of their heads. Nevertheless, while many fantastic new genres of music flourished during the twentieth century, classical music started to get pushed to the side, slowly fading out of earshot like the final endless chords of this symphony. If you listen closely, it’s still playing; you just have to listen a lot harder nowadays.
I got into classical music a couple of years ago. When I first started delving into the history of this music and reading articles about the financial misfortunes that are afflicting orchestras and composers across the world, I started to fear that I had arrived about a century too late. On that Saturday night, however, I looked around at the spectacle of a sold-out Hill Auditorium, full of everybody from casual music lovers to aspiring composers from the School of Music, and the serene contentment of the Ninth overcame me. As long as there are people out there who still believe that they can express themselves through the symphony orchestra—this strange, impractical, arbitrary hodgepodge of oboes, trombones, violas and other assorted instruments—there will be an audience for this music.
And now, I would like to ask a humble favor. Since you’ve read through this colossally overwritten half-review-half-essay in its entirety, you clearly have a lot of time on your hands. If you could please take a few seconds out of your day to write something about music in the comments below, it would be so awesome. It can be an anecdote about the role music plays in your life, a fun fact about Hector Berlioz, a story about that one time you met André 3000, another review of the same concert I just reviewed, a treatise on the sociopolitical ramifications of the MP3—anything at all. [art]seen exists to promote discussion about cultural events on campus, yet too often it seems as though we [art]seen bloggers are writing in a vacuum, with no feedback from our fellow students. All it takes to get a conversation started is one comment. Thanks for reading!