Friday, January 13, 2017

Mahler in New-York

No. 237 of the ongoing  ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


This week’s Blog and Podcast re-visits a topic we first discussed on the Tuesday Blog back in 2012 and feeds this month’s Project 366 chapter on The Concert Experience.

Let me shamelessly borrow from the original post, with significant updates about the performances – and performers – I retained this time.

Off and on, New-York has had more than one professional symphony orchestra holding subscription concerts - Sergey Rachmaninov appeared as soloist in the world premiere of his Third Piano Concerto on November 28, 1909, which took place at the New Theater in New York City. Walter Damrosch was conducting the Symphony Society of New York (From the archives of the New-York Philharmonic)

In a memorable evening at Carnegie Hall on 16 January 1910, Rachmaninov gives the third performance of his Piano Concerto no.3, with the New York Philharmonic under its new music director, Gustav Mahler.

Rachmaninov deemed Mahler “the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with (Arthur) Nikisch. He touched my composer’s heart straight away by devoting himself to my Concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to the point of perfection, although he had already gone through another long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important—an attitude which is unfortunately rare amongst conductors.”
The New York Herald reported the following day:

The impression made at the earlier performances of the essential dignity and beauty of the music and the composer’s playing was deepened, and the audience was quite as enthusiastic in its expression of appreciation as at the performance at The New Theater on 28 November last and at the Carnegie Hall two days later. […] The work grows in impressiveness upon acquaintance and will doubtless rank among the most interesting piano concertos of recent years, although its great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers.

The Symphony and Philharmonic Societies merged under the Philharmonic banner in 1928, and remained the single main professional orchestra in the area until 1937, when David Sarnoff formed the NBC Symphony Orchestra for Arturo Toscanini to conduct as the network’s flagship orchestra. Although its initial home was Studio 8-H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the orchestra regularly held court at Carnegie Hall, where the acoustics (and space) were better suited for public broadcasts.

The NBC Symphony was disbanded after Toscanini’s retirement in 1954 but continued to record and perform for another decade or so as the Symphony of the Air notably under Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski.

Upon his return from winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, American pianist Van Cliburn appeared in a Carnegie Hall concert with the Symphony of the Air, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin (who had led the Moscow Philharmonic in the prize-winning performances in Moscow). The performance of the Rachmaninov 3rd at this concert was subsequently released by RCA Victor on LP and is one of the four works I retained in the re-creation of the Mahler/Rachmaninov concert of January 1910.

Keeping to the original Philharmonic program, the opening work was a Mahler “original”, as the Philharmonic also premiered an orchestration by Mahler of selections of J. S. Bach’s 2nd and 3rd Suites for Orchestra. Compared to the hyper-romantic arrangements of Bach organ music turned out in the first few decades of the twentieth century (by the likes of Schoenberg, Elgar, and Stokowski) Mahler's version of music from Bach suites is surprising forward-looking and restrained.

Wilhelm Mengelberg was principal conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam forsome 50 years (1895 - 1945). Mengelberg met and befriended Gustav Mahler in 1902, and invited Mahler to conduct his Third Symphony in Amsterdam in 1903, and on 23 October 1904 Mahler led the orchestra in his Fourth Symphony twice in one concert, with no other work on the program. Mahler edited some of his symphonies while rehearsing them with the Orchestra, making them sound better for the acoustics of the Concertgebouw. This is perhaps one reason that this concert hall and its orchestra are renowned for their Mahler tradition. The Mahler Suite after Bach is performed today by the Concertgebouw orchestra under Riccardo Chailly.

The second half of the concert features performances of music from operas familiar to New-York audiences and within the Mahler repertoire; the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, an opera Mahler first conducted in his earliest assignment at the Hamburg Stadttheater and at his New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera on 1 January 1908 and Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride was one of the last operas Mahler conducted during his short stint with the Metropolitan Opera - on 19 February 1909.

The “end” of the NBC Symphony/Symphony of the Air came when in 1962 Stokowski founded a new orchestra, the American Symphony Orchestra whose mission is to demystify orchestral music and make it accessible and affordable for all audiences. Stokowski was 80 years old when he founded the orchestra and served as music director together with assistant Amos Meller until May 1972 when, at the age of 90, he returned to England. Today, Leon Botstein is the orchestra's music director and principal conductor. They perform regularly at Carnegie Hall and Symphony Space in New York City, and are also the resident orchestra at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson. The Wagner is performed by Bolstein and the American Symphony in today’s montage.

The concluding piece of the montage, the overture to Smetana’s opera, is taken from a broadcast recording by the NBC Symphony under Mahler’s long-time collaborator, Bruno Walter.

I think you will love this music too!

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