Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mahler 3 with the North Carolina Symphony

6:48 PM
"Bimm bamm" is German for "ding dong," if you didn't know. Mahler's third symphony features a women's chorus and a boychoir. While the women sing sweet, jolly folk-inspired melodies about St. Peter and the angels, the little boys punctuate every phrase with bimms and bamms on the strong beats. It's like the most sophisticated German version of Frere Jacques you could imagine.

My alma mater, Oklahoma City University, performed movements from Mahler's third when I was a freshman. OCU was bursting at the seams with fabulous 18-to-22-year-old musicians, but a boychoir we had none. Instead, a small group of sopranos from the women's choir was co-opted to sing the boys' line. Even in the best of circumstances, it's tough to hear a group of children--or, ahem, skillful child-imitators--over a Mahler-sized orchestra. I spent the performance up in that choir loft straight-up BELTING those bimms. (more after the jump)

Though I was a little deaf by the end (I was right next to the dude playing the chimes), it still stands out in my mind as one of the rosiest experiences of my musical education. Though Mahler's extreme, historically-unprecedented eclecticism of textures, styles and instrument groupings was clearly not the bag of music critics in his day, it sure is mine. Few other composers' work so completely illuminates every nook and cranny of the delicious drama that is life on this planet. (Click here to hear Assistant Concertmaster Karen Galvin being super-articulate about this in a great interview that aired last week on WRAL.)

You can imagine how excited I was when I heard that NCS would be performing Mahler's 3rd Symphony last weekend. Friday night, I showed up to Meymandi about 15 minutes before curtain--not 100% sure that affordable tickets would be left--and approached the box office. Before I could even pull out my debit card, I was gifted an expensive seat in the middle of the THIRD ROW ORCHESTRA LEVEL, donated by a subscriber who couldn't make it. Yes, for real.

Good things happen when you go to the symphony.
As the gargantuan first movement of the piece careened from foreboding pillars of sound to light and fluffy swirls, stentorian brass to tinkling bells, I was struck by the conducting. It wasn't the first time I've seen Grant Llewellyn lead the NCS, but it was the first time I've appreciated how versatile he is. The full-bodied gestures--lunging into downbeats, arms high over his head--that he exhibited as the movement opened suited the grander bits perfectly. They actually reminded me more than a bit of the infamous caricature (top left) of Mahler conducting his own work. But Llewellyn matched the sharp musical contrasts by turning on a dime and transitioning into a light, delicate style with an emphasis on precision during the daintier sections.

As the first movement wore on, I took a lot of notes on the conducting, the solos (those played by Concertmaster Brian Reagan, for example, boasted such a sweet tone that a 2-second slice of any of them could bring a tear to your eye), the instrumentation. Eventually, Mahler's whimsical arrangement of textural and stylistic blocks absorbed all of my attention and I spent a good bit of time scribbling a rough diagram of stylistic shifts in the first movement.  Now--in "things that you may enjoy or that may make you think I'm insane"--(most of) that diagram:

Mahler: 0 to pirate shanty in nothing flat

Two other tidbits that tickled me:

1. I hadn't realized before hearing this symphony last weekend how directly 2 of my favorite movie musical moments call back to its first movement. (If you're the type to get disappointed in things when you're learn they're derivative, never investigate the world of film scores.)

2. I sat next to a Raleigh Boychoir mom who told me that at rehearsal the day before, the boys had been tough to hear. Tonight, she said, they would be miked--she just hoped it would be enough. That orchestra was really loud.

She needn't have worried. It sounded like the little choristers not only had a generous helping of amplification, but also brought their loudest A-game after an epic pep talk from their conductor. At times the melodies in the 80-plus voice women's chorus (the ladies of the North Carolina Master Chorale, in fine, angelic form) were actually inaudible against the boys' zealous bimms and bamms, leaving little doubt as to who were the true stars of Mahler's Third Symphony. Yaaas, little belters--YAAAS!!!

About the author

I'm Andrea. Everything you need to know is here.