The fun in watching Gustav Mahler

Not Mahler himself. He died in 1911, long before I discovered his music, and from what I know of him, he was maybe not a lot of fun to be around. (Although I do thrill to his looks: my type.)

My musical evolution was classic. As a kid, I loved big loud, nakedly emotional stuff. By my 20’s, I was moving away from the squishy, sobby Dionysian into the Apollonian. I’d grown out of the big, loud stuff (“emotional” had become maudlin) and into music that made me swoon.

Then I grew up even more and discovered the clarity and wonders of chamber music and of intensely hypnotic solo works, and how witty and playful some composers were.

And then and then and then — “then” was maybe twenty years ago — I fell into early twentieth century music, particularly Eastern European composers. I am powerfully in love. I haven’t relinquished my old favorites, no. The Greats are still Great. I still have tears running down my cheeks at the end of Beethoven’s Seventh or Ninth. It’s not a matter of choice. Not my choice, anyway. The composers chose me and I am hooked.

Mahler was one of the choosers. It knocks me out how he openly spills out his guts, his complicated, neurotic, tragic, joyous, embarrassing, meshuganah life when I listen to him.

But what has thoroughly grabbed me about Mahler is….watching him.

Like a kid in a movie theater, I get excited when I see the rear of a Mahler orchestral stage, upon which is assembled an extraordinary panoply of known and unknown structures, otherwise called percussive instruments — things meant to be banged upon — and the tools with which the musicians use to do the aforementioned banging.

Oh, and the musicians. They’re back there, too.

There are instruments I recognize and some objects I can’t even name. Here’s a list of the percussive instruments which were on the stage the other night when I heard Mahler’s Fifth Symphony:

  • Four gleaming copper kettle drums, graduated in size — a family, let’s say — and a whole bunch of vari-sized mallets, which are drumsticks with soft white cotton clumps on the ends, laid out in a neat row on a table nestled up to the drums.
  • One massive bass drum, set on its edge.
  • One snare drum.
  • One set of standing cymbals.
  • One set of hand cymbals, each larger than the standing one.
  • Two triangles, one medium size and the other teeny; they were played by two different musicians, probably because the bigger triangle guy was occupied at the time of the teeny one with cymbals, or glockenspiel.
  • One glockenspiel, although it must have been lurking behind the cymbals because it was not visible from my seat. But I knew it was there.
  • Two extremely large hanging gongs.
  • One clapper — two pieces of wood banged together, but only for a very short time during one movement; it’s a startlingly ordinary sound out of a tool shop.

I think there were four or maybe five musicians manning that particularly marvelous fort, and at least one of them — the kettle drum guy — played almost continuously for more than an hour.

Why do I love watching them so much? Because they do a lot of things back there: they switch instruments, they move around, they stand, they sit, they quickly exchange one set of mallets for another, they pick up an instrument and put it down and go off to another one, they tune their drums.

And they keep the beat.

Watching the beat is so much more exciting than watching the string section, or even the brasses, or the reeds, or the harp, or anything at all in a huge orchestra.

The beat and the beaters and the gorgeous objects they beat on are, collectively, the cat’s meow. And Mahler, bless his energies, hands them to me on a big brass gong.

The music was great, too.


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