Review: Absent 20 Years, a Conductor Rescues the Philharmonic
Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is difficult for conductors even on their best days.
So you can imagine the pressure on Simone Young, who, after not appearing with the New York Philharmonic since 1998, stepped in on short notice to replace the orchestra’s injured music director, Jaap van Zweden, on Thursday evening at David Geffen Hall. (The maestro will be fine but was ordered to rest after burning his shoulder with an ice pack last week.)
Thursday’s imperfect but respectable concert, which featured only the 90-minute symphony, would have been opportunity to hear how Mr. van Zweden, still at the start of his directorship, is shaping the Philharmonic’s Mahler sound, typically a specialty of this orchestra. Instead, the evening ended up being a preview of Ms. Young’s scheduled return next season, when she will lead a program of Britten, Elgar and her Australian compatriot Brett Dean.
Mahler, however, might be the better composer to hear Ms. Young conduct, given what she is known for in her long-established career at opera houses and concert halls abroad. She is leading Wagner at the Bavarian State Opera next month, with Strauss coming soon after in Zurich. Her discography includes a lot of Bruckner and, yes, Mahler.
It may be that Ms. Young’s opera work informed her approach to the Sixth Symphony, which on Thursday was worthy of its onetime subtitle, “Tragic.” Dealing in shocking extremes — sometimes within a measure or even within a single beat — she exploited the work’s dramatic threads: the opening’s journey from a minor-key march to a major-key victory, followed by inner movements both demented and pastoral and, in the 30-minute finale, a struggle that ends in defeat.
Is this a symphony with a narrative program, per se? Not explicitly, unlike Mahler’s earlier ones. But the Sixth is so fraught with historical and interpretive inconsistency that a persuasive conductor could make a case either way.
Conductors must also come to the symphony ready to take a stance on the problems that have surrounded it since its premiere in 1906, many created by Mahler’s wife, Alma, whose apocryphal tales set serious scholarship back decades. Is that second theme in the opening movement really a portrait of Alma? Is the hero of the finale Mahler himself, felled by three fateful hammer blows? (Or is it two?) Of the inner movements, which comes first, the Scherzo or the Andante? Does it even matter?
It did matter on Thursday. Kind of. The Philharmonic opted for the Scherzo first, which in the context of Ms. Young’s interpretation made the joyous ending of the first movement all the more pathetic by plunging immediately back into a minor key.
Saving the Andante for later, however, did leave the symphony sagging after about 45 minutes. This section seemed the least rehearsed, with a wobbly start and an unusually cold distance that never warmed. It may improve by Saturday’s concert, along with sound imbalances in the brasses and, in the balcony, cowbells that were more distractingly present than pleasantly distant.
The Philharmonic players did regroup for a calamitous finale; each strike of the hammer was a heart-stopping jolt. When the third blow lands — and yes, there were three on Thursday — the symphony takes a woeful turn. You could read this as a hero’s tragedy, or as a metaphor for Mahler’s life. But don’t for a moment see it as representative of Ms. Young’s conducting, which, against the odds, was valiant to the end.