Polite Ravel Before Theatrical Mahler

United StatesUnited States Ravel, Mahler: Cleveland Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 21.3.2013 (MSJ)

Ravel: Mother Goose (complete ballet score) (1908-12)
Mahler: Symphony No. 7 (1904-5)

Like everyone else, I wish Pierre Boulez a return to health. His continuing eye problems resulted in his cancelling plans to lead this concert of the Cleveland Orchestra. But, with all due respect, I’m perfectly happy with most of what I heard tonight from his pinch hitter. Unless some shocking change has swept over the cerebral French conductor, Boulez’s handling of Gustav Mahler’s massive and often perplexing Symphony No. 7 would have been very similar to how he led the piece 20 years ago in Cleveland—my first live Seventh, with a tremendous first movement, followed by four run-throughs. Boulez’s Deutsche Grammophon recording—made the same week as the concert—still strikes me the same two decades later: an earth-shaking first movement, followed by four best described as “meh.” Boulez loves the complex stuff. The rest? Not so much. Ten years later, I heard Franz Welser-Möst conduct the work with the Clevelanders, also five movements of “meh.” (It is surely no coincidence that the amount of Mahler heard in Cleveland has plummeted during the Welser-Möst regime.) Yet I have loved several recordings of the piece over the years. What was missing?

Well, Alan Gilbert, for one thing. In my years of sporadic trekking to Cleveland to hear concerts, I never managed to cross paths with Gilbert when he was gaining his chops as an assistant conductor under Christoph von Dohnányi. I have only heard a few examples of his work since he became music director of the New York Philharmonic, though I’m aware that he has both fans and detractors. I found myself in both camps during this concert, though I was ultimately won over.

I was dubious at intermission. The first half of this demanding program was the complete score to Maurice Ravel’s ballet Mother Goose (Ma Mère l’Oye), and though it wasn’t awful, it was short on magic. In a work best described as “magical,” that’s a problem. First off, let me go on record saying that I’m not particularly fond of the complete score. Ravel originally wrote the five main pieces as a four-hand piano suite for children. When he orchestrated the suite, he created a masterpiece. To make it a continuous-action ballet, Ravel padded it out with an additional scene (“The Dance of the Spinning Wheel”) and various links. Though I like the added scene, the links are pretty thin, mostly orchestral gestures that somehow detract from the limpid focus of the five original scenes. Second, I don’t think it makes a particularly good concert mate for Mahler’s Seventh.

Given that Boulez chose the program, and Gilbert agreed to conduct it intact, the onus was on the latter conductor to make the two antipodal works come to life. Instead, this Mother Goose remained flat on the page. All the notes were in place, and of course the Cleveland Orchestra played exquisitely. But for much of the score, Gilbert didn’t seem to be asking the players for the delicate dynamics and rarefied atmosphere that can take audiences into a whole other world. Instead, he made inappropriately grand, sweeping gestures and drove down the middle of the traditional interpretive road. Things perked up a little in the “Tom Thumb” section, where Gilbert provided more narrative shape, molding irregular phrases in arcs emphasizing the title character’s lost wanderings in the woods. Finally, “The Enchanted Garden” was carried aloft on the sheer gorgeousness of the Cleveland string playing.

After intermission, it was a different show. Gilbert was as swashbuckling as ever, but suddenly the theatrics were providing crisp focus. Rhythms were a touch stiff at first, and the poor trumpets, unneeded in the Ravel, broke on a few of Mahler’s octave leaps until they were warmed up (another reason the Ravel was not a good makeweight for the Mahler), but Thomas Klaber’s tenor horn solos sounded richly handsome. Moving into the main body of the first movement, Gilbert took off at a brisk pace.

That far in I still had doubts, but sat up when Gilbert moved with great poise into the quiet contrasting theme of the movement, shaping the dynamics much more carefully than anything in the Ravel. The passage’s inflections carried an emotional charge that Boulez’s performances lacked since there weren’t many inflections—fewer than those the score calls for, in fact. Boulez may have the reputation for precision, but Gilbert was actually living the music.

I knew things were getting good when Gilbert managed to be both effortless and precise in the quiet middle of the movement. There is a peculiar passage here (which the great Mahlerian Jack Diether pointed out in his notes to the 1980 James Levine recording), where the nocturnal clouds that march through the movement suddenly pull back for just a few seconds to reveal a radiant sky of stars, as the harp sweeps you up to them. It is a critical moment, where Mahler reveals a tender vulnerability, and it can make or break a performance. Gilbert and the Clevelanders aced it.

For the inner three movements, Gilbert emphasized quirky humor. To be sure, there are darker, more shadowy ways of handling them, but his youthful energy and theatrical pouncing certainly worked. Best of all was the scherzo, which was full of Mahler’s best funhouse hijinks, but at the same time Gilbert was sorting textures and making lucid sense of Mahler’s increasingly hallucinatory gestures.

Nothing in the work is more bizarre than the finale, in which fragments of banal theater music (as Mahler conducted in his youth) are subjected to kaleidoscopic fracturing, along with mock-pompous take-offs of the “Prelude” to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Like a shattered mirror, the movement distorts the commonplace into the twisted. Since the movement is so unconventional—in some ways, the most modern movement Mahler ever wrote—many conductors just shut their eyes, set a fast pace, and try to get through it as quickly as possible. When one has the sheer blazing force of personality of a Sir Georg Solti, that might work, but most conductors don’t. Gilbert instead elected to characterize each fragment and let the non-transitions be exactly what they are: the musical equivalent of film jump-cuts. He saved his snappiest moment for the orchestral lashing-out that cuts off yet another repetition of the polite, banal dance. This helped fuel a lively coda that, for once, truly sounded like a point of arrival, leading to a grand peroration and a perfectly timed trick ending.

I would naturally want to hear Gilbert in a wide range of repertory before drawing further conclusions about him. The conductor may yet be a bit young and callow for late Mahler, but he clearly grasps—better than some of the biggest names in the business—that Mahler was a man of the theater, and that his music only becomes fully alive when handled with theatrical flair. Thus, Mahler’s Seventh was in perfect hands. May Gilbert yet grow into the Zen serenity of the Ravel.

Mark Sebastian Jordan