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East Side Story

This afternoon we went to a concert by the Boston Youth Symphony in Symphony Hall. The feature of the concert was Mahler's First Symphony. It is a tour de force (it is called the Titan). I love that piece and they did it really quite well. There were a few bits of out-of-tune playing, but overall these 14-18 year olds were fine musicians and the ensemble playing was excellent. The conductor, Federico Cortese, who also leads grownup orchestras did a great job - I think we saw him at a Boston Lyric Opera production several years ago (I could leaf through the pile of programs, but...).

The first piece in the concert was the Dvorák Festival March performed by the Junior Repertory Orchestra - those kids were pretty young. The conductor, Adrian Slywotzky was absolutely beaming as he came in and then out at the end - clearly proud of how good these kids were.

It is quite irregular to see 11-17 year olds dressed neatly these days and we say several hundred of them.

One of the pieces that the Boston Youth Symphony did was an arrangement of music from West Side Story. In the Program notes I read that when Bernstein originally conceived this in 1949 (the debut of West Side Story was 1957) it was going to be called East Side Story. It was to take place on the east side of NYC about conflicts between Jews and Catholics with Juliet Jewish. Street brawls, double death, etc. all fit. Then Bernstein got busy doing other stuff and the next time he considered a modern Romeo and Juliet it was in LA based upon gang violence between Mexican and Anglo's. A bit later it moved back to NYC on the west side to take up the eventual theme.

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The Titan is one of my favorite symphonies. I had one of those CBS Masterworks recordings with Bruno Walter conducting the, I think, New York Philharmonic. I was disappointed when I found last year, though, that I hadn't successfully transferred it to my hard drive when I moved to England. I was downright pissed when I returned to Boston and realized my Mahler CD was missing. So, last week I saw a used copy of the Titan (coupled with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) featuring Kurt Masur, Håkan Hagegård, and the New York Philharmonic for only £2.50. I was so thrilled to be able to listen to it again.

Yet, despite my love of Mahler, I have never yet heard one of his works performed live!

We were sitting in the 2nd balcony very close to the stage - we usually sit further back. They had the stage extension on so we were almost up to the conductor's podium. We were on the right side so we overlooked the cellos, couldn't see the basses nor some of the big horns. But everything else could be seen. The timpanist, the lead oboist and several others were fun to watch. So in addition to the great live sound there is the visual aspect as well.

You must find a live Mahler concert.

I would love to find a Mahler concert. The big thing so far this year in London has been the Russians and Messiaen. I've been to three concerts in the past couple weeks alone that featured Shostakovich and/or Prokofiev and plan to go to at least one more Shostakovich concert and a Messiaen recital in the near future. But I haven't seen any Mahler advertised yet.

Mahler is one of those composers whose music is a very different experience live from recorded. The big percussion crescendo in the last movement of the Second is absolutely hair-raising in the concert hall.

For many years I tended to sneer at the last few minutes of the First as just being completely over-the-top vulgar and bombastic. But I've come to realize that over-the-top vulgarity and bombast have their place, and one of the places where they actually work pretty well is at the end of this symphony.

It occurs to me to wonder whether anyone has ever programmed the First and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen on the same program, to give an audience a chance to hear how he reworked the material. It seems kind of obvious; I'll bet Ben Zander has done it on one of his Boston Philharmonic concerts.

I played in a couple of youth symphonies as a teen. I think the Portland (ME) youth symphony may have been where I first played Beethoven's 7th, which I've rehearsed and performed at least three times.

Go youth symphonies.

The one place where you could really tell that you weren't listening to professionals was the double-bass solo at the opening of the third movement, which was pretty seriously out of tune. But you know, that's OK; yeah, it would be better if it were in tune, but that solo is not supposed to be beautiful.

The horns were amazing. Mahler really gives his horn players a workout, and these folks sounded really good. There were a couple of bloops, but I don't think I've ever heard a live performance of a Mahler symphony, by any level of orchestra, where there weren't a few horn bloops.

Another amusing fact about West Side Story that I learned from the program notes: when Bernstein heard the orchestra at the Winter Garden Theater (where the first run was booked), he was so appalled by the playing of the violas that he told his orchestrators to leave them out.

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