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Arts Festival Review: Absolute Mahler

Arts Festival Review: Absolute Mahler

Review by Robbie Ellis

Absolute Mahler: Works by Debussy, Zawinul and Mahler
Performed by the Absolute Ensemble cond. Kristjan Järvi and Sara Macliver (soprano)
Wednesday 5 March 2008
Wellington Town Hall
http://www.nzfestival.nzpost.co.nz/music/absolute-mahler
Reviewed by Robbie Ellis


The Absolute Ensemble, based in New York City, bills itself as “musical omnivores”; a group for which genres are meaningless. They put forward that the group’s members may come from classically trained backgrounds but that they are equally at home in all genres. The question was whether they could interpret a Mahler symphony with the same technical facility, sense of ensemble and musicality as the best orchestras and players out there. The answer, for me, was no.

First up, however, were two shorter pieces. The Ensemble played Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, or strictly speaking the reduction thereof done by a pupil of Schoenberg’s for his Society for Private Musical Performances. Despite only having five string players in the group (two violins, viola, cello and bass), the sound of the strings section was really quite full and it carried well in the Town Hall. I wish the same can be said for the woodwind players however: the lovely flute and oboe solos in the original were quite dull both dynamically and emotionally in this piece – in fact all the players looked quite dead. I didn’t get much of a sense of line from the flute and oboe in this performance. A clarinet rounded out the woodwinds, piano provided the harp parts, a harmonium played on a synthesiser filled out the last of the harmony, and the two crotales from Debussy’s original score were played by two different players standing at opposite corners of the stage.

The group seemed more at home with Ballad for 2, a composition by pioneer of fusion jazz and founding member of Weather Report, Joe Zawinul. (The arrangement for this group was by New York musician Gene Pritsker.) Before his death last year, Zawinul himself had played with the ensemble in “Absolute Zawinul”, a concert series revisiting his works. His presence was substituted with a recording of his intro and outro for this piece. While I confess not to knowing Ballad for 2 before this gig, the arrangement successfully married the more classical-sounding strings and wind with the brass and rhythm section – expat Kiwi double bassist Mat Fieldes did an admirable job in his dual role as a member of both the strings and rhythm sections. Trumpeter Charles Porter’s fine sense of tone and line stood out for me, but the ensemble as a whole brought a great deal of sensitivity to Zawinul’s slow and intricate work, and this was very much worth hearing.

After an unexpected interval (the group had only played for twenty minutes before we went for half time!), we came to the centrepiece of the concert, Mahler’s Symphony No 4. This was another arrangement for Schoenberg’s private musical society, with essentially the same forces as the Debussy. While the very first tempo change of the work was very very sloppy, it was satisfying to see the players come out of their shells following the two slow and considered pieces in the first half. From the beginning of the first movement, the strings made ends of phrases into visual theatrical flourishes, and conductor Kristjan Järvi’s wide variation of tempi in Mahler’s fickle first movement really gave the work some life.

As the programme notes and publicity had promised, the second and third movements did shed new light on the symphony: the smaller ensemble (particularly the strings) produced some delightful chamber music sounds that gave me fresh perspective on Mahler’s writing. The percussion playing was suitably restrained against the smaller orchestra, but I feel they could have been a little more prominent in the texture.

While the playing was good on the whole, there were some significant ensemble issues: many tempo changes were not under control and there were some terrible moments of bad intonation, including a slippy-slidy mijor-minor-major third from an unidentified string player at my favourite cadence in the whole symphony (around three quarters through the third movement). That being said, the third movement was redeemed by cellist Mike Block, who played beautifully and lyrically and took each of the many opportunities to make his instrument shine among the texture.

I was a little disappointed that Järvi didn’t push the group to be louder and more forceful at the moment the gates of heaven opened in the third movement. While this moment in the original orchestration is still not on the same scale as equivalent points in Mahler’s larger symphonies, I had hoped that this moment would have been grander since it was always going to be peak in intensity over the arc of the concert.

Resplendent in a green mermaid-like dress, Australian soprano Sara Macliver glided onto the stage during the introduction of the final movement. This made for a very welcome change to normal orchestral concert practice – it’s much nicer to see the soloist enter gracefully when she is needed than for her to sit on stage doing nothing for 45 minutes. Macliver was a great performer and really inhabited the role of an amazed child, communicating the text through both body language and vocal expression. It is a shame that her voice occasionally got obscured by the thicker orchestral textures. Mike Block continued his heavenly cello playing, and I have to single out Keve Wilson (cor anglais) and Michiyo Suzuki (bass clarinet substituting Mahler’s bassoon writing) for beautifully executing their lines at the lullaby-like final section.

All in all, this reduction of Mahler did give me a fresh perspective on his Symphony No 4 – a symphony I had played at university and has been one of my favourites ever since. There was some really sensitive playing from the Absolute Ensemble, however it is a real shame that some beautiful moments were spoiled by bad intonation and a lack of rhythmic tightness. A quick google after the concert leads me to believe that this may be the first time the Absolute Ensemble has performed the Mahler in public, which may explain some of the imperfections as teething problems. Bearing that in mind, I think that this group may still be more at home drawing from jazz and creating new melting pots rather than faithfully interpreting great masterpieces of the classical repertoire. Perhaps tomorrow night’s concert of Middle Eastern-jazz fusion (details below) will be a more satisfying experience for a punter.

********

Arts Festival - Chamber Music Performed With a Twist
Absolute Mahler on the Arts Festival website
Full Scoop Coverage - Arts Festival 2008

Also from the Absolute Ensemble:
Absolute Arabian Nights:
Michael Fowler Centre
Thu 6 March
7:30pm
with special guests Marcel Khalifé, Daniel Schnyder, Bassam Saba & April Centrone.
Tickets from $45.00 + BF.
Arts Festival - Groovily Exotic – Jarvi Rocks the Band

Absolute Arabian Nights on the Arts Festival website

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