Review: Mahler's Symphony No. 1

Violinist Leila Josefowicz joined Larry Rachleff for ISO Classical Series Program NO. 3

2 stars

Hilbert Circle Theatre; Sept. 30-Oct. 1

The first remark I heard at intermission was "That's the worst piece of music I've ever heard." Then an elderly gentleman sat down next to me and said, "How do they expect to increase their audience with noise like that?" He then went on to wax negative about much of the contemporary repertoire.

Both these people were ISO donors - entitled to spend their 20-minute break in Founder's Room where wine and coffee are available. And both were referring to the opening work on Friday's program, the Concerto for Violin: Concentric Paths (2005), by 40-year-old-Brit Thomas Adès, earlier viewed as a wunderkind of composition - another Benjamin Britten. Violinist Leila Josefowicz, having appeared with the ISO a number of times previously, did provide the concerto with some dazzling solo playing.

But we began to suspect when Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra guest conductor Larry Rachleff felt the need to discuss the work from the podium, demonstrating each movement's opening bars, before playing all of it, finally beseeching us to "hunker down" for its three movements and some 25 minutes. If any new work dramatizes the schism between a lay audience and musical professionals, Concentric Paths couldn't have been better chosen.

Rachleff, in his discussion, kept referring to "colors, harmonies, and rhythms winding around each other." And yes, they were all there in abundance. But they offered no musical tension, and therefore nothing to resolve. This was not the 12-tone music of a near-century ago: There were common chords scattered throughout. But I could not relate what came before to what came during to what came after: no sense of progress, no emotional investment.

It was a sound display with harmonies, colors and rhythms - not a piece of music, and I suspect that's what the lion's share of the audience heard. Yet they gave the piece - or perhaps more properly Josefowicz - a hearty applause (though no one stood this time), bringing her back for an encore.

Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D (1899), appearing after the break, is entirely another matter. One of the most immediately accessible of his "titanic ten" and calling for the largest orchestra of any symphony up to then, it has been mistakenly renamed "Titan" of late when it is in fact, at 50 minutes, the shortest of Mahler's symphonic oeuvre, if you count the entire piano score of his unfinished Tenth Symphony.

Using well-known material from his Songs of a Wayfarer, Mahler transmogrifies it into music seemingly embracing the world while caressing all of nature. Its second movement, a ländler-type scherzo, is divided by Jewish Klezmer music serving in place of the standard "trio" - a nod to the composer's religious heritage.

Rachleff failed to get out of this work everything he intended to, with the instrumental choirs thorny in places, the trumpets well overshadowing the rest of the complement in the abrasively loud sections, albeit playing otherwise with beauty and precision. With all four of its movements equally inspired - something which cannot be said of many of the composer's ten - No. 1 is especially difficult to bring off. In this case it showed.