Mahler’s Titan: truly, madly, deeply

16 Mar

BEIRUT: “Truly, Deeply, Titanic,” as Al-Bustan organizers called Monday evening’s Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra performance of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony, may sound a bit incongruous. The festival booklet’s description of the piece – “It releases an ardent energy, depicting true joy of life” – is more pithy.

As it turns out, Al-Bustan got it spot on. The trio of words not only evokes the exact qualities of Mahler’s “Symphony No.1 in D Major” (powerful, mighty, grand) it also cleverly plays on the title of said symphony: “Titan.”

Each of the four movements of “Titan” depicts an aspect of nature and seems to suggest a seasonal theme.

The first movement, intended to create the awakening of nature after winter’s long sleep, depicts the coming of spring. The second movement is based on an Austrian folk dance. The third parodies a funeral march. The final movement evokes a storm.

Under the baton of conductor Gianluca Marciano, the LPO proved such summaries to be empty of meaning.

Mahler’s symphony began quietly, each instrument announcing its presence like the first springtime growth. As strings began moving in unison, separate melodies mingled into a gradual, still reserved, swelling.

The first movement was absorbing for the way in which the various instruments and the melodies they rendered seemed to supersede one another, like ripples on a thawing lake, then relent as another wave washed over it.

Marciano also serves as Al-Bustan’s music director and his abilities were evident from the first flick of his wrist. He marked initial sparse moments of tension with a languorous movement of the baton. He seemed to accompany or interpret the music, rather than directing it, transforming the waxing and waning of rhythms into performance.

The 35-year-old Italian maestro comes to conducting via the piano. He made his piano recital debut at the age of 10 and has since won several national and international competitions.

The first movement reiterated its tone of foreboding, punctuated by shrill violin, while Marciano’s movements were so contained as to suggest a powerful escalation of energy without appearing frenetic. At moments of building tension, Marciano looked like a spider suspended from its web.

The calm that marked the end of the first movement was dashed by the vigorous opening bars of the second movement. The dramatic opening moments were cheekily deflated by moments of rebellious, youthful joy.

Most of the second movement evoked growth and blossoming and the performances of conductor and orchestra reflected a more-relaxed tenor.

The LPO began as the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra in 1998 and has been performing at Al-Bustan since 2000. It was not until 2009 that the LPO title became official. Given that “philharmonic” literally means “lover of harmony,” the change in name seemed especially apposite on Monday evening.

A gigantic orchestral enterprise, Mahler’s first symphony was written with more than 100 musicians in mind. The LPO on Monday evening comprised a mere 98 players, but their rendition of the piece was entirely stunning.

The third movement commenced in a serpentine fashion, with instruments intermittently reiterating themes that harkened back to the opening movement, each of the orchestra’s voices contributing a strand to the sonic fabric’s greater whole, each foreseeing and mimicking the progress of the other.

After the swelling, provocative violins and moments of strong percussion, suggesting a gradual, predatory advance, the third movement ended with astonishing tension.

The fourth movement then dispelled this tension, with the trombones and tuba leading the orchestra in a violent, escalading tumult of chorusing, the trumpets seeming to sound repeated warnings.

The escalating violin lines were evocative, first of discovery, then of action, decision, momentum, movement and, pounding throughout, energy.

By the time the final movement of Mahler’s symphony approached its end, audience members were sitting, erect and alert, in their pews.

Mahler’s first symphony ended with a gathering of momentum first bolstered and then transformed by trumpets, elevated to another level entirely by thumps of the bassoon and thrusts of the violin.

Marciano gave expression to the audience’s own pent-up tension, jumping into the air at the final escalatory movement, with trilling from the quartet of flutes penetrating the music’s sober depths.

The great success of this performance was due, in no small part, to the choice of venue.

While most of the Al-Bustan festival’s shows are staged the Beit Meri hotel of the same name, the Mahler was performed in St. Joseph Jesuit Church, in east Beirut. The structure’s high ceilings and stone walls proved ideal for the resonance and energy of Mahler’s composition.

But it was the magnificent energy of the LPO, under the baton of the irrepressible Marciano, that made the show exceptional. Who would have thought that witnessing something “titanic” could be so spectacular?

Marciano will conduct the LPO in its performance of Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater” on 18 March. Al-Bustan continues until 27 March. For more information call 04-972980/1/2.


One Response to “Mahler’s Titan: truly, madly, deeply”

  1. krikOrian March 17, 2011 at 8:31 am #


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