Last night, I attended a live performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 for full orchestra.
In practically any other year, that sentence would be relatively unremarkable. I often attend symphony concerts, and I love Mahler. But in 2021? I feel like that sentence needs to be rewritten as:
LAST NIGHT, I attended a LIVE PERFORMANCE of MAHLER’S SYMPHONY NO. 1 for FULL ORCHESTRA!!!!!!!!!
The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the performing arts industry worldwide. Countless performances and entire seasons have had to be cancelled due to the uncertainty wrought by COVID-19. For the organizations that have managed to find a way to put on performances, they’ve generally had to scale back numbers and perform smaller works. Led by President and CEO Kim Noltemy, the Dallas Symphony has shown an incredible commitment to keeping live music going during this pandemic, with concerts happening regularly since July 2020, all without a single case of community transmission of COVID-19. The DSO’s mission statement is to inspire and change lives through musical excellence, and everything the leadership have been doing throughout these past 14 months has been to that end: prioritizing the physical health of all of its musicians, staff, and patrons, so that everyone is able to make and share in the music that is so integral to our mental and spiritual health.
When it was announced that the DSO would be partnering with Metropolitan Opera Orchestra musicians to put on this joint performance of Mahler 1, I wanted to cry and cheer at the same time. The Met Orchestra musicians have been out of work since March 2020, with no live performances in over a year. DSO music director Fabio Luisi was previously engaged as conductor of the Met for seven seasons, six of those as principal conductor, and his idea to bring Met musicians to Dallas to join forces on the Mahler was an inspired one, celebrating his close ties with both orchestras and showing solidarity with the Met Orchestra members in a time of such crisis for these incredible musicians.
The DSO will be offering a free stream of this concert starting May 11, and I will link it here when it is available to watch. But even the best audio/video equipment isn’t quite the same as experiencing the music in person, and I feel compelled to talk about what this performance felt like to witness live.
I know this symphony well; I’ve been lucky to perform it multiple times in my life so far, and this piece was my introduction to Mahler so this symphony holds a very special place in my heart. But even so, nothing really prepared me for how I’d feel hearing the opening sound of the strings. There’s such a difference between hearing 20 string players playing softly and 60 string players playing softly… the air was electric with reverence and promise. It was a breathtaking sound, the sound of a whole world being established.
From then on, the interjections of all the different instruments of the orchestra had me transfixed. It was colorful, it was conversational, it was so gloriously alive. No buffering, no internet connectively issues, no grid of boxes staring back at me. I could feel the vibrations of all these voices in my body, and it was incredible to feel physically swept away by a sound again. Every single instrument became my favorite instrument at some point throughout the night. My mind would hear a passage and immediately think, man, oboes are the best! Five seconds later I’d be in awe of the violins. Eight bars later, it would be the flutes. Then the horns. The bass clarinet. Percussion. Trumpets. The 4th movement viola soli had me shaking in my chair, it was so good. But perhaps my absolute favorite orchestral section for this performance was the double basses. It was the first time in my life I’d ever heard the 3rd movement opening done not by a solo double bassist, but by an entire section. I wasn’t prepared for the magical quality that came from this change (which was suggested by Maestro Luisi). Whenever I hear this passage done as a solo, it feels desolate and lonely; bleak and unsettling. When done with a full section? This passage became a hypnotic, otherworldly plainchant. I felt like I was listening to the hushed singing of a group of monks. And while there’s nothing wrong with it done as a solo (it’s a massive feat of skill and something to be celebrated!), it seemed significant and symbolic to hear it done as a collective. It was as if to remind us that even if we are capable of going it alone, magic happens when we join forces, and amazing things can happen when you feel the support of the people around you.
With the two stage extensions and the spacing requirements, there were some minor ensemble issues. It might not have been the tightest, most technically perfect Mahler 1 I’ve ever heard, but I couldn’t have cared less. In fact, I think the few flaws solidified my overall impression that this was a rendition replete with the soul of humanity. It was heartbreakingly, breathtakingly alive, pulsing with energy and nimble tempo changes. It felt broken and bruised but ultimately restored and renewed. It was epic yet intimate; huge in its emotional and physical scale yet deeply personal. So too has this pandemic been for all of us – mind-bogglingly big, encompassing and traversing every aspect of our lives, and also a very personal fight. We’ve all lost something and/or someone this past year due to COVID-19; loved ones, work, opportunities, time with family, time with friends. Hugs. Our sense of safety. A sense of hope.
In college, my flute professor once asked me what orchestral rep I enjoyed best. I answered with Mahler symphonies and Strauss tone poems. I think this took him a little bit by surprise – wouldn’t most flutists prefer Ravel and Debussy to Mahler and Strauss? I love “flutey” rep as much as the next gal, but the reason I love Mahler is because I love feeling like I’m part of something bigger, something much more than one person can be on their own. Playing a Mahler symphony feels akin to looking at images from the Hubble Space Telescope – you are struck with wonder at being so infinitesimal, yet being part of something so all-encompassing. Smaller ensembles, while great in their own way, are not the same as a full orchestra, and listening to last night’s concert made me realize how deeply I’ve missed everything about this, and how grateful I am to everyone that worked so hard to make this happen. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Hopefully someday soon, my opening sentence will not strike anyone as unusual, but regardless of how frequently the world will be treated to full orchestra concerts in the future, I definitely plan to take the “all caps” level of wonder and enthusiasm to every live performance I am lucky to attend and perform going forward. Music is such a precious gift to humanity. It is a life force, it is a portal into our deepest emotions, it is an entire universe to behold… and the connection it creates between humans is the most meaningful harmony of all!
To watch the joint Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Metropolitan Opera Orchestra stream of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, click here (will be updated after May 11, 2021).
To donate to the MET Orchestra Musicians Fund and the DFW Musicians COVID-19 relief fund, click here (all donations will be split equally between both groups).
To donate directly to the MET Orchestra Musicians, click here.