In speaking with the French critic Yannick Millon the other evening he remarked to me that “I will always associate the Seventh Symphony of Mahler with September 11,” for he was here in Lucerne on that day in 2001 and this was the piece that the CSO and Barenboim played that night, once the orchetra members decided that they would indeed go ahead with their scheduled concert and program. In the same way, I will always associate this ever-peaceful and impossibly beautiful city with that horrific day as I, too, was here then and each of us probably carries a connection to that day that is inseparable from where we were at that time. To make things even a bit more unsettling, I am sitting in the very room, the Media Room of the KKL, where we I and my young German friend Tobias Niederschlag, now dramaturg of the Semper Oper Dresden and the Sächsische Dresden Staatskapelle, learned of what had happened in the U.S. a few hours before while we had been traveling to Lucerne by train, I from Berlin and he from Munich. For all of us here the CSO and its artistic and management staff, the presenters, the audience, and the press that extraordinary concert and ist effect opening with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and then consisting of the one previously announced work Mahler 7 was as indelible, if not more, than the shocks that preceded it.
In their own way, and with no intention of creating any kind of an equivalent with that unique tragedy, the orchestra’s performances of the Mahler 9 with Barenboim have come to take on an extra-musical meaning, a sense of leave-taking in this last year or so before Barenboim’s departure from the music directorship. Some European observers/auditors of Friday night’s concert and Lucerne is home to many very discerning listeners, both lay and professional, unused to the Barenboim way with Mahler were puzzled by some of his choices and methods and focused most on the outstanding quality of the orchestra itself, its sections and individual players. But for those who have followed Barenboim’s move from Mahler doubter to (selective) Mahler advocate these last years, his personal connection to this music, and his personal, lyrical stamp on it is unmistakable at this point. I, for one, think that the way he both shuns excess in the Ländler movements of the symphonies he plays and, at the same time, brings out a true sense of dance from them, is among the most insightful interpretations of these works that are sometimes loved for the wrong reasons.
I mentioned the audience here a moment ago. While the good burgers of central Switzerland are certainly the bulk and backbone of the Lucerne Festival audience, the fact that Lucerne is an historic magnet for musical figures to make their principal or second homes means that the “celebrities” here are of a decidedly different cast than at the society-dominated Salzburg Festival or the composer-driven Bayreuth. On Friday evening alone the audience included pianist Radu Lupu, conductor Bernard Haitink, and others. Tonight the family of the late former CSO music director Rafael Kubelik is here and Sir James and Lady Galway are to be at the Sunday program. Lady Solti is usually here for CSO concerts but I am not sure if she will be here on Sunday. Dress here is conservative and, for those who focus on such things, understatedly elegant. I have been in only two cities Lucerne and Dallas where a black suit with white shirt is the normal male costume for symphony concerts. Even at the contemporary music concerts in the smaller black-box Luzerner Saal at the KKL, the programs that attract a large number of young people here, the beret-sporting women security guards-cum-ushers require those carrying their sports or jeans jackets to either check them in the cloakroom or put them on before entering the hall. The solution seems rather obvious. Put the coat on to please Frau Securitas and then take it off as soon as one enters the room. Several others follow this plan as well.
It used to be that many CSO members sat in the hall in Chicago when they were not playing a part of the program and often came with their spouses to concerts on which they were not playing. Today, I see very few players who do this consistently other than John Bruce Yeh, assistant principal and E-flat clarinet, although a number of the younger players again are sitting in the hall for individual pieces or soloists. For contemporary music concertsaround town the numbers are even lower. Here in Lucerne, the only CSO players I see at the excellent smaller contemporary programs are John Yeh and cellist Katnika Kleijn, each of whom has a regular involvement with Chicago new music groups as well. Katinka is at the new music performance on Saturday morning (!) of the Ensemble Phoenix Basel, a seven-year old group in which my friend Lucas Rössner is the bassoonist. Lucas grew up in the former East Germany and, as with a number of younger people from the DDR found that he did not feel particularly at home in either the West or the East of the reunited Germany and so made his way elsewhere. We met two years ago at the 35th birthday weekend party in southern Styria (Austria) for our dear mutual friend and colleague, the Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth and have been good friends since then, sharing interests in literature, theatre, and music. Trained as a Sprecher (speaker) a role that we don’t really have in such a specialized way in the U.S. as well as a musician, Lucas participates in a number of tehatre and opera productions, including Olga’s contriversial collaboration with the recent Nobel laureate in literature, Elfride Jelinek, Lost Highway, based on the David Lynch film. Now he is also pursuing training as a Feldenkrais Method practitioner. Feldenkrais, and the older Alexander Technique, are extremely popular with musicians as a means for maintaining body and muscle alignment and preventing or responding to repetitive stress and other professional hazards. Singers tend to draw on them for issues of breath control. After hearing Lucas play in a 1990s set of works from the German composer Detlev Müller-Siemens (Phoenix I-III for 13 instruments), we both stay for the first work on the second half, Ghosts of Schizophrenia, a commission from “Musiker, Saxophonist, Komponist [composer], Produzent und Audio Engineer” Alex Buess, we take a walk and catch up over an Italian lunch along the river. I walk him back to the train station so he can head back to Basel and he gives me a CD he has put together from some of his favorite Tori Amos recordings. Well, it will be something different for me!
Speaking of meals: Assistant principal viola Li-kuo Chang and I used to make a point of heading for at least one Chinese meal on each CSO tour (Henry Fogel also was a very good organizer of both East and South Asian food foraging) and four years ago we found a good place here in Lucerne which, although it has Li-kuo’s native Shanghai in its name, is actually run by ethnic Chinese from Viet Nam who speak no Chinese whether from Shanghai or any other region! Then something difficult happened in our Chinese eating routine Li-kuo fell in love with, became engaged to, and then married the delightful Maggie. Now that they are more established, they’ve opened up the eating circle again and so Friday night Li-kuo, Maggie, principal horn Dale Clevenger and his wife additional horn Alice Render Clevenger, viola Karen Dirks and her husband, Dennis, a marine architect (think yachts think big yachts, when his firm is fortunate), and I head up the hill to China Shanghai. We are supposed to be joined by bass trombone Charles Vernon and additional horns Hector Rodriguez and an additional additional horn Luca, from the Florence (Italy) May Festival orchestra, but while we left the train station at teh same time, their cab never arrives at the restaurant. I suggest that Li-kuo calls teh other Chinese restaurant in Lucerne which is about a block away and indeed that’s where they turn out to be. But, as Li-kuo reports back, “Charlie was pretty hungry so they already ordered!” In any event, a good time was had by all, and, so Hector tells us today, by their trio of brass players as well!
Funding for these reports is provided by a generous grant from Alphawood Foundation, with additional important support from the Joyce Foundation, Richard and Barbara Franke, Richard and Mary Gray, and Scott and Judy McCue and the Black Dog Fund.