The New Mahler, Seattle Style

Three weeks ago I attended a surprisingly wretched performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, at Benaroya Hall, in Seattle, Washington. Conducting–to call it by that otherwise noble word–was Seattle’s own version of Kurt Masur, Zubin Mehta, and Leonard Bernstein all rolled into one, a man of such consummate talent that his deep wisdom cannot be bound by his music, and who must express with prefatory words what the more prosaic maestros of the world express through mere trumpets and catgut: Seattle’s very own Gerard Schwarz.

My grievance? That before the performance, Maestro Schwarz explained that Mahler wrote his second symphony to commemorate the fate which befalls us all, death, and that we too, as Americans, had now a special opportunity all our own to ponder this mysterious phenomenon. Schwarz told us that Mahler had written a five minute silence into the score, and that the Seattle Symphony would, in a stunning interpretive flourish, honor this silence. Schwarz then invited the audience to stand during that pause, and to consider the “tragedy” of 9/11 while the orchestra waited.

After the first movement, Schwarz turned to the audience, and like our third-grade elementary-school teachers, gestured to us to stand while he led us in his own version of the flag salute. His mostly white, mostly bourgeois, mostly obedient and mostly middle-brow Seattle audience dutifully obliged. I did not.

I secretly hoped that one of the other parishioners might shoot me a nasty look, or in some way prod me into creating an incident, perhaps offering me a chance to express my hope that one of their sons might sacrifice his blood and conscience to make some barren piece of Iraqi soil forever America, (or at least to make Iraqi oil forever America’s), but alas, they were all polite, like me. My protest was most genteel.

I thought about many things during that silence, while I sat. I thought about the 3,700 or so Afghan civilian deaths that have resulted from American bombing in that country, as reported in the European press and mostly ignored in the U.S., and about the effects on Iraqi civilians of the American bombing of water-treatment plants after the Gulf War (i.e. widespread civilian disease and deaths), and of the long-ago and long-forgotten CIA bribing of military officers in the countries of the middle east, in an attempt to get them to turn against their governments, which they overwhelmingly refused to do, and thereby sealed their fate as enemies of the U.S., which resulted in widespread…you get the idea. That’s what I thought about.

I also, during that silence, wondered but was unable to determine whether Schwarz referred to Shakespearean tragedy, Wagnerian tragedy, or perhaps Hegelian tragedy, all of which imply an inevitable conflict born of noble will, as tragedy (in the proper sense of the word) arises less from choice than from necessity, a confrontation born of principles intrinsic to our humanity, and which form the stuff of life. I wondered exactly what Schwarz intended by this stunt, and I speculated that his complete ignorance of what tragedy means might provide one explanation. (I can theorize only: Schwarz has refused to answer my query, as has Larry Tucker, SSO’s director of what they call “Artistic Planning”). But my first theory was unsatisfactory. Too simple, too dismissive.

I therefore suggest the following: that Schwarz’s jingoistic mischief that afternoon represents the scope of his interpretative genius. More precisely: that Schwarz’s inability to place into his conducting any semblance of learning, knowledge, vision, imagination or taste, that his conspicuous failure to evoke through music any hint of word-transcending humanity, any distinct stamp of his own, resulted in a desperate attempt to sentimentalize his audience, that we might in the depths of our patriotism overlook his own aesthetic mediocrity. Schwarz appropriated Mahler’s humanitarian symphony to the causes of the most shallow variety, and thereby helped to strengthen that irrational American self-righteousness that may yet rip this country, along with a few others, to pieces. That is the extent of Schwarz’s artistry.

Perhaps for his next trick, Schwarz will encourage us to think about neck injuries and quadriplegia among American soldiers returning from a land invasion of Iraq, before conducting Ravel’s “The Gallows.” But I doubt it. He hasn’t the knack.

Ian Daoust can be reached at: iandaoust@yahoo.com

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