Simone Young Shines in Mahler’s Sixth at the NY Phil

Friday, April 12, 11am, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, NY

It’s no small task to step in at the last minute and take over a symphonic megalith like Mahler’s Sixth, but conductor Simone Young did just that when New York Philharmonic Music Director Jaap van Zweden bowed out due to injury (I’ll bet you didn’t know that conducting was a contact sport). The piece is fraught with tricky moments both large and small, and for the most part Young made all of the right decisions, starting with taking the inner movements in the order Scherzo-Andante, rather than the other way around. Generous with rubato in the first movement’s “Alma” theme, the trios of the scherzo, and the finale’s lyrical second subject, Young had the Philharmonic’s musicians following her lead with precision and enthusiasm. Both outer movements had plenty of excitement, with an especially cogent account of the long finale.

There were a few minor slips here and there: the trumpet’s high solo entrance in the opening march, for example, and I do wish the tam-tam player whacked the thing with more gusto in the finale, but the Philharmonic in Mahler is still one of the more reliable combinations in modern concert life. It was particularly salutary to see Mahler’s full orchestration used for a change, including four harps, two celestas, and even some extras permanently placed offstage to handle the cowbells. There’s really no excuse for a “prestige” orchestra to offer anything less, but most of them do. The hammer blows in the finale, also, were aptly pulverizing, although Young included the gratuitous third one which makes no musical sense–but that’s a matter of some controversy. Anyway, in Mahler more is almost always better, and the Philharmonic’s generosity in terms of personnel mirrored the big-heartedness of Young’s interpretation.

Note the time of the concert–yes, 11am. You might find that a tad early for Mahler’s most tragic symphony, but then an elderly lady at the MET once mentioned to me that she listened to Bartók’s scorching ballet The Miraculous Mandarin every morning over coffee, so let’s not jump to conclusions. Besides, as anyone who has played it will tell you, Mahler’s Sixth is one of the most exhilarating pieces in the repertoire; it may end tragically but you have one hell of a good time getting there. It makes sense for the Philharmonic to offer concerts at a convenient hour for seniors, who constitute the bulk of its audience anyway.

Accordingly, the hall was well filled by an attentive, geriatric, and somewhat cough-prone crowd that sounded more than pleased with the results. One lady a few rows from me turned her phone on during the symphony’s dark, soft coda and pretended not to notice the looks of disgust aimed in her direction. They should bring back the death penalty for that. The ovation at the end lasted for several minutes, and was certainly well-deserved. Young and the orchestra did themselves, and Mahler, proud. And it was over in plenty of time for lunch!

David Hurwitz