The Vienna-based Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, another legacy of Claudio Abbado, is probably the world’s leading youth orchestra. Its regular appearances at the Salzburg Festival deserve a flag, combining youthful exuberance with skill and promise for the future.
Tonight’s albeit somewhat morbid program was no exception: indeed, it was an all-Mahler program, featuring the final movement (“Abschied”) from the Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony, the last piece Mahler completed before he died. Philippe Jordan conducted, with Christian Gerhaher as the soloist for the Abschied.
Jordan coaxed a wide palette of sounds from the orchestra, and by highlighting individual lines, and then mixing them, he revealed just how peculiarly Mahler scored the Lied von der Erde. Gerhaher was more of an appendage, just kind of there. An alto soloist usually sings this movement, but Mahler put down a baritone as an alternate. The advantage of a baritone voice is to provide darker coloring, but Gerhaher failed on this front. His voice is neither especially pretty nor full-toned – probably not helped because he essentially spoke half of the lines rather than singing them, periodically breaking into a quasi-falsetto. His instrument was big enough to project over the orchestra, but it was a characterless performance, easily overshadowed by (when not getting in the way of) the orchestra. We heard him, but did we really want to?
With Gerhaher out of the way, the orchestra became the focus for the Ninth Symphony. I could not figure out Jordan’s concept for the work, or if he understood its warped architecture. However, Jordan did successfully showcase the virtuosity of these young musicians – as an orchestral whole, within their sections, and individually. These kids were spectacular, and if Jordan managed to allow them to demonstrate that to the raptured audience, then he succeeded – with or without any other intent.
The concert took place in the Felsenreitschule. As a bizarre aside, the stage was set up for a concurrent production of West Side Story – and so the orchestra performed from within the set, repleat with New York street graffiti and scaffolding. Mahler worked in New York at the time he composed tonight’s music (albeit he returned to Austria to do the actual composition), but I am not sure that connection was intentional – probably just a strange coincidence.