Mahler what?

I went to hear Norman Lebrecht give a lecture today. His new book (Why Mahler?) is out, and though I haven’t read it I was curious to hear what he had to say.

I’d like to know where he gets the idea that Mahler has eclipsed Beethoven in the concert hall. He claimed that if you put up a poster advertising a Beethoven concert, people walking by will see it and might look closer to see who the conductor is. But if you’ve got a poster for a Mahler concert, people will suddenly start buying tickets.

I wasn’t aware that Beethoven had suddenly become a bore to concertgoers. Nor was I aware that Mahler is suddenly the secret to every orchestra’s problems with audience attrition and flagging ticket sales. He cited a slew of Mahler cycles and performances happening this year. But he didn’t cite comparable Beethoven statistics for comparison.

If I had more time, I’d look up the Orchestral Repertoire Reports from the League of American Orchestras. But I shouldn’t have to wade through dozens of pages of data just to see if he’s right that Mahler is being performed more frequently than Beethoven, or that Mahler concerts sell a higher percentage of the house than Beethoven concerts, or whatever actual statistic might back up his claim. He should tell his audience what he means and where he got his information.

Anyway. He played examples from a few of Mahler’s symphonies and talked about their autobiographical elements, their encoded social or political messages. All interesting and compelling ideas. But it drives me nuts when a speaker doesn’t differentiate between facts, consensus, and individual opinion. If you’ve got supporting info, let us know: it’ll only strengthen what you’re saying. If lots of people agree with you, mention that too. And if something is your own idea and your opinion, say so. I’m more likely to listen seriously if I her you say, “I think…” rather than if I’m sitting there wondering, “Where the hell did that come from?”

Because as much as I was glad to hear what Lebrecht had to say, I spent far too much of the time wondering where the hell he got his info or opinions, or even which was which. It’s not that anything he said was inherently wrong; it’s that I don’t even know what’s what. And that’s absurd. He had the same problems as that stupid webinar I went to last week: data without sources leading to potentially false conclusions.

And. His conclusion really came without backup. Why Mahler? Because Mahler, he said, has a “direct emotional impact” that other composers do not. He touches “both heart and head.” Okay, yes. Mahler’s music as both an intellectual and an emotional impact. But so does a LOT of music. That’s just not unique to Mahler.

Lebrecht told a long story about a professional flutist who hadn’t been ‘feeling it’ and was ready to give up music altogether. In a performance of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, the flutist suddenly connected to the music in a way that he hadn’t ina  long time. And re-committed himself to his musical career. It’s a lovely story. But honestly, I think it could have happened with any of dozens of pieces. I don’t think that only Mahler is capable of such feats. It’s just an anecdote.

And that’s how I felt about much of the lecture. It contained some compelling thoughts. But that’s what they were: thoughts. Interesting, but unsatisfying.


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