I once heard a music lover who lived in Manhattan say that he no longer bothered to go to concerts very often. Regarding the New York Philharmonic he said that it was more trouble than it was worth to get to Lincoln Center to “listen to Mehta do another pedestrian run-through of standard repertoire.”
How sadly jaded, I thought. I’ve been in New York City maybe three or four times in my life, only once for more than a night or two. I never have and probably never will hear the Philarmonic live. This man’s “pedestrian run-through of standard repertoire” would be a rare treat, quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for me. And he could easily have it a dozen times a year or more. Still, though I was slightly shocked, I didn’t really blame him; it’s human nature to lose the sense of wonder and appreciation for anything we can take for granted. And I suppose it’s good for music that connoisseurs refuse to let even the best performers get away with less than their best effort. But there’s something to be said for naïve appreciation as well.
Last night I heard Mahler’s 1st performed by our local symphony orchestra. Like most such orchestras in medium-sized cities, it’s small, its instrumentalists are not full-time employees, and it struggles to stay in business. Even to my untrained and forgiving ear, the performance had technical defects. Nevertheless, it was a delight to me.
I suppose I’m as jaded with regard to recorded music as my Manhattanite was to live music. I have Mahler’s 1st on an old LP and could listen to it more or less anytime I want to, but haven’t done so in years. No orchestral recording is quite as vital and engaging as a live performance, even a less than perfect one. This was as enthralling a musical experience as I’ve ever had. It had been so long since I’d heard the symphony that it sounded fresh, and I found it to be even better than I remembered. Mahler originally saw the work as depicting an artist’s innocent exuberance, rejection, disillusionment, suffering, and rebirth, but I hear something else. From my vantage point in the early 21st century I hear this late 19th century work as a prophecy of what the next hundred years would bring. The third movement in particular, Frere Jacques transmuted into a funeral march that turns slightly deranged as it goes on, seemed a window opening onto the distant vista of Germany’s impending madness. And the putative triumph of the fourth movement seemed overwrought and unsound, a victory likely to prove temporary.
Afterwards, the heroism that struck me was not that of Mahler’s melancholy artist on his quasi-divine mission, but that of the people who made this performance. It’s no small thing to bring concerts like this, season after season, to small cities where resources and public interest are limited at best. And it required no small amount of nerve for this group to take on such a large and demanding work.
The Mobile Symphony gets some amount of help from the National Endowment for the Arts. Some conservatives have been on a sort of vendetta against this agency, based mainly on its use by the political left as a source of subsidies for junk art with no real point other than to stick a finger in the eye of the public it despises. But most of the grants have apparently never gone to that sort of thing, and the agency is now under the direction of the very reasonable and gifted Dana Gioia. If conservatives want to make an argument from principle that the government should not be funding art at all, let them. I’ll listen more sympathetically to that argument when they show an equal appetite for eliminating government payments to corporations. If we’re going to have an enormous government with its fingers in everything, I’m not going to object to a little of its money going to keep the greatest achievements of Western civilization alive to those members of the public who care, even, or especially, out here in the sticks.