Thursday, May 20, 2010

The new touchstone

Jaime Weinman, writing for the Canadian magazine Maclean's, notes the rise of Gustav Mahler as the touchstone composer for conductors on the make. The mettle of maestros used to be measured by their interpretations of Beethoven; now it's their Mahler, and the trend is accelerating thanks to the back-to-back Mahler anniversaries (this year's 150th of his birth, next year's 100th of his death):

Actually, the Mahler-as-touchstone trend has been building for a couple of generations. Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Haitink, Klaus Tennstedt and Giuseppe Sinopoli secured their international reputations with concert performances and recordings of Mahler; so, more recently, have Simon Rattle, Riccardo Chailly and Michael Tilson Thomas.

Jacques Houtmann, the former Richmond Symphony music director, measures a conductor's grasp of large-scale late-romantic Austro-German repertory not in Mahler but in Bruckner. Making a coherent whole out of Bruckner's elemental motifs, abrupt transitions and pregnant silences "is very difficult," Houtmann observes. "Mahler is big and long, but [interpretively] is much easier."