REVIEW: Berliner Philharmoniker (Saturday Program)

8:30pm • Saturday, November 19, 2022 • Hill Auditorium

Seeing the Berlin Philharmonic perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 on Saturday night was nostalgic for me, despite never having seen them perform previously. Back in early September, I vaguely recognized the name of the orchestra on the UMS season schedule as one of my younger brother’s favorites. He is still in high school, and lives several hours away, but when I texted him that the Berlin Philharmonic was coming to Ann Arbor, he flew into action coordinating travel plans with our parents while I bought us two student tickets. This weekend, he and my parents drove through blizzards down from northern Michigan to see the performance and kick off Thanksgiving break.

On the night of the performance, my brother and I waited anxiously in the crowded lobby of Hill Auditorium for the doors to open, and in our seats we people-watched together, with a particular eye to the eccentric winter gear of some of the older patrons. During the performance, we excitedly nudged one another whenever we heard a flute (his instrument) or clarinet (mine) playing solos, and we both fangirled obsessively over the showy flutter-tonguing of the flute in the fourth movement.

I am not an expert in music, orchestras, arranging, or conducting, but this performance was captivating for me because of the way live music engages my imagination, eases the flow of my thoughts in new directions, and awakens moments from my past to be interpreted in new ways. I have read that Symphony No. 7 seeks to represent the transition from night to day, drawing from nature. There were moments where the music made me think of a slumbering hive of honeybees beginning to stir, or the midnight walk of a lone coyote across moonlit snow. At intervals, I drifted into memories of my childhood, time spent listening to and playing my own music. Listening to the Berlin Philharmonic flow through the symphony’s five movements became a process of listening for the memories evoked by each melody.

Seeing the Berlin Philharmonic perform reminded me of music and artistry as a common thread weaving throughout my life, connecting me with my family and my memories. It also reminded me to be grateful for the advantages afforded my by attending a school like the University of Michigan, and the privilege of being able to share the arts here with my family. The performance helped me reconnect with the joy that comes with experiencing music, and my first evening upon returning home for Thanksgiving break saw me digging my old etude books out from among my mom’s stacks of piano music and brushing the dust off of my clarinet case.

REVIEW: Berlin Philharmonic

It is a rare event when you get to see some of the world’s best musicians all on a stage together, directed by the very famous Simon Rattle. What was almost as special as this was the mere fact of how many people showed up to Hill Auditorium both Saturday night and Sunday afternoon to see the Berlin Phil. I know that classical music can sometimes be a tad old-fashioned or out of the interests of millennials, but it was incredibly encouraging to see the masses of people, all different ages and backgrounds, coming out to see the concert.

The performance started with a more contemporary piece called Éclat by Boulez. The piece contrasted a variety of instruments on stage, from mandolin to harpsichord. Every musician had to be incredibly attentive to one another, as their entrances came randomly and spaced out by an arbitrary number of rests. Additionally, the combination of instruments kept changing to showcase different mixtures voices. Though it was not my personal favorite, the piece offered a fascinating contrast to the following part of the program.

The next piece they played was Mahler’s 7th Symphony. I have long been biased towards Mahler’s work, always feeling incredibly in tune with his melodies and emotionally connected to the solos. One of the most impressive aspects of the Philharmonic’s performance was the woodwind solis, which usually consisted of the flute, oboe, and clarinet principals, as well as the second principals at times. These few musicians were perfectly connected in their musicality and phrasing, to the extent that their separate instrument timbres would melt into one another at the end of a phrase. This was such a treat to hear, being a clarinetist myself and always enjoying the beautiful bell tones of a leading clarinet player.

But of course, I have to also mention the conductor. Rattle was a very enthusiastic conductor, but not to the extent like some others such as Dudamel. His exuberance was more subtle and concentrated into his communication with the musicians. Most of all, you could tell how close the director and symphony had come, when at the end Rattle traveled through the orchestra and shook the hand of every principal musician. It was a very touching moment, and I believe the entire audience felt its impact.


Image by Kim Sinclair

by Kim Sinclair

PREVIEW: Berlin Philharmonic

When? Saturday, Nov 12 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, Nov 13 at 4:00 pm

Where? Hill Auditorium

How Much? Students: $20, General Admission: $50 – $185

Why? It has been 7 years since the Berlin Philharmonic last came to Ann Arbor, and it is the final US tour of the orchestra with their director Simon Rattle. They are performing some of the most spectacular pieces ever composed, including Mahler’s 7th Symphony and Brahms’ 2nd Symphony. It will be a couple days you do not want to miss.

Image by Sebastian Haenel

by Kim Sinclair

PREVIEW: San Fran Symphony

A young Michael Tilson Thomas. He turns 70 this week.
A young Michael Tilson Thomas. He turns 70 this week.

Who: The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas

What: Mahler’s Symphony No.7

Where: Hill Auditorium

When: Thursday, November 13th, 7:30 (alternate program on November 14 click here for details)

Price: $14-$85

The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra will be in Ann Arbor on the 13th and 14th, bringing the great Mahler’s 7th Symphony along with them. The SFSO is constantly regarded as one of the finest orchestras on the world circuit, and seeing them here at Hill Auditorium is nothing short of a treat.

Mahler’s 7th was written in 1904-05 and marks the composer’s return to his ‘progressive tonality.’ The symphony is roughly 80 minutes in length and is sometimes referred to as Lied der Nacht (lit. Song of the Night) due to its evocation of Nocturnal themes.

REVIEW: Listen Closely: Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and the Past, Present and Future of Classical Music

“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!

PREVIEW: San Francisco Symphony

On Saturday the 16th of November at 8 PM, the San Francisco Symphony will be bringing its rendition of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony to Hill Auditorium, and I will be attending my first ever totally symphonic concert!

The Ninth Symphony is the last completed musical work written by Gustav Mahler. It was composed from 1908 to 1909, but it was first performed in 1912, after his early death from a congenital heart condition at the age of fifty. In the classical music world, Mahler is a legendary figure: he is the man who made the cowbell an instrument in the modern symphony orchestra. As if that wasn’t enough to secure his place in history forevermore, he was also one of the last big Romantic composers, a guy from a small town in Austria who managed to take all his life experiences—childhood memories, love affairs, an immeasurable amount of personal tragedies—and somehow turned those experiences into little dots scribbled on paper.

I’ve been listening to a few pieces by Mahler in preparation for this concert. Judging from what I’ve heard, Mahler’s music is extremely dynamic and unpredictable, using a huge orchestra to alternate between music of stunning beauty and equally stunning pain. His compositions are rich with melodies that often cascade on top of one another, as though the composer has too many melodies running through his mind and can’t wait to put them all on paper. Mahler once said that “the symphony must be like the world—it must embrace everything.” I cannot wait to get lost in Mahler’s world this Saturday.

More information about the performance can be found here: $10 student rush tickets are on sale now.

In the meantime, enjoy a bit of Mahler via YouTube:

Mahler’s 7th Symphony, Movement II, Part I

Mahler’s 7th Symphony, Movement II, Part II