On the night of Nov. 17, Hill Auditorium was packed with men and women from throughout the entire midwest. Everyone dressed up for the occasion, wearing their finest clothing to help the New York Philharmonic kick off their weekend celebration of Leonard Bernstein, esteemed composer and former conductor of the NY Philharmonic. The glorious “Symphony No. 5,” composed by Gustav Mahler, was the program for the night, a fitting choice to celebrate Leonard Bernstein, as he recognized the genius in Mahler’s music and made it popular by conducting it. The combination of world-class musicians standing on stage feverishly going over last minute problem areas and the suffocating smell of mothballs were all indicators that something special was about to unfold. The lights dimmed and everyone bit their lips with excitement.
Jaap van Zweden, the conductor for the night and music director designate of the NY Philharmonic, walked onto the stage with a focused look on his face. He immediately directed the orchestra to start the symphony, which begins with a funeral march. The trumpet player, skillfully played a motif which served as the principal theme of the entire first movement. Mahler’s music is especially challenging to play because of its length and its attempt to describe every facet of life, the good along with the bad, through music. In fact, one of Mahler’s most famous quotes is: “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” Mahler’s symphonies go from the calm and quiet moaning of strings to loud and celebratory sounds of the brass and low beating of the timpani in a very short amount of time.
Mahler himself was a composer who experienced alienation throughout his lifetime. Being Jewish, he constantly faced alienation and expressions of anti-Semitism directed against him. Mahler’s music was a way for him to come to terms with the emotional highs and lows that he had to face throughout his lifetime, and he challenges the musicians, conductor and audience to do the same. The instrumentalists played Mahler’s music with incredible technique, completely swaddling the audience with the emotional soundscape that Mahler intended his music to possess.
Van Zweden’s conducting was a wonderful sight to behold. He shaped the phrases and emotional states through both subtle and great movement of his hands and entire body with poise and skill. Van Zweden conducted as if he were having a dialogue with each musician of the Philharmonic, guiding them along their musical journeys through sharing his own experience through movement and expression. Van Zweden, like Bernstein, portrayed the emotional strain of the piece as if the music were telling of stories and experiences from his own life.
I particularly enjoyed the “Adagietto” movement, which left me and sobbing. The strings created an illusion of a continuous soundscape, while the harp created an ethereal feeling. The Philharmonic gave a taste of what heaven would sound like. Van Zweden’s conducting changed –– his arms and hand movements resembling those of a ballerina’s with grace and beauty that mimicked the music. The musicians played the strings of their instruments with their bows, eyebrows narrowed, lulling the audience and transporting them into a place where all beauty and emotions existed at once: A celestial state of being.
The performance was transformative. The musicians and van Zweden invited the audience to think of their own highs and lows in life, as they all poured their hearts out onstage for an emotionally exhausting hour and a half. After the symphony ended in a grandiose fashion, with the whole orchestra ending together in conquest of the human experience, the audience jumped to their feet and roared with applause and cheer. It was obvious that everyone in the auditorium had been affected deeply, and could walk out of the space a more sensitive and changed person.