Today is supposed to be the Rapture, according to a particularly enthusiastic group of weirdos. There were billboards in Houston advertising this at the end of April, but I'm sure no one in Vienna was aware of this prediction when they programmed Mahler's Ninth Symphony for this past Wednesday. That was the hundredth anniversary of his passing, a day of remembrance significant to this town, and so the music of the end of his life, of the end of life, sounded in our hall 72 hours in advance of the purported end of time. Even if I do start seeing empty piles of clothing around me today, I'm not sure it would feel more monumental.
The last week anyway has been all about future and past, and the exquisite catching in between. Sometimes planning forward or remembering back can keep me from living in the present moment, but sometimes those activities are mirrors that throw light back upon the now, and I find myself there, or at least closer to there than usual. I've been meeting with all my colleagues making plans for next year, who plays what, when we start coaching the new things, when the old, who never needs a Solostunde for Sciarrone again and who should always have one, on and on. It is the beautiful, rolling story of a repertoire house, musicians with thirty years of triumphs and failures folding the new people in. I had to do an interview one day in a break from all this, and as I invited the interviewer through the door and said, "welcome to my office", I turned toward my desk, my pianos, the tall windows, the three roses, and found myself folded.
This comes right at a time when other professional/personal shifts feel seismic, historic endings and soon-to-be endings at Lincoln Center. So many days, I walked up Broadway from the Columbus Circle station and crossed that plaza into a certain community and tradition. So many nights, I walked through the doors on all sides of that square to hear friends make music. Nothing stays, that's true. But still.
There was a long symposium on Mahler in Vienna on Wednesday afternoon, at the end of which a colleague and I performed three songs. They happened to be exactly the same three I performed with a different beloved mezzo in NYC four years ago, a time monumental for other reasons. It was extraordinary to return to these pieces with a different mind and body. How trapped I was in mine then. How extraordinary now to touch this same music in a room that called us all away from ourselves, a room named for the man we were honoring, a man who once ran this house. His picture was everywhere in the room, chubby and bearded in youth, seated in an uncomfortable approximation of authority later, out in the recognizable streets of the city with his daughter.
The thoughts in your head that no one ever knows about! The chatter of life that I think Strauss tried to put into his operas, the dumb and present sound that Mahler writes as screaming winds or dirty strings. How many people are in the audience oh there's my boss does it matter that our dresses are different lengths I have absolutely got to get moth traps today and then it's time to begin. And then, mostly, somehow, you're gone, until you're not. As we began "Urlicht", an elderly lady in the front row loudly unwrapped a candy, then got up and walked out, etwas derb, perfect.
I had just enough time to nap before the concert, but the phone was ringing as I entered my office (my office). He'd been at the symposium and loved the songs, he was at the stage door, could he meet me? He dropped the name of a singer I know, the one I had lunch with after the recital I almost slept through. The elderly man is the son of the architect who presided over the restoration of the Staatsoper after the war. We had a coffee and I listened to him talk about Vienna in rubble, the rebuilding of the city, his life as a lover of music. Then it was time for us to go hear the orchestra.
I gave a quick call to a sick colleague who will come back to work next week after a long illness. He lives, incidentally, in Bruno Walter's old apartment. The piano rehearsals for the original Mahler 8 soloists were held there, and Walter was living there when he conducted the premiere of the Ninth Symphony. I've eaten an omelette there, where those singers once made mistakes. I turned off my phone and walked through Mahler's halls, sat in the Loge next to my friend, a friendship that stretches back through Houston to a living City Opera, looked down on the stage as the Philharmonic walked out, their faces and habits now familiar. The concert would be dedicated to the tsunami victims, and it ended in silence after all that noise and suspension.
Lord, does it take courage to play the Ninth. The end of several movements are spun out forever, long and slow, very quiet, and often just a few people are playing. A little woodwind duet here, a single brass note there, a quiet string chord. These quiet notes are often sustained for a very long time. I can't describe to you the courage it takes to keep your breathing calm enough to just do that, play a super quiet long tone in the middle of all that music. There are also shatteringly loud and fast passages, and the sounds Mahler calls for range from exquisitely warm and beautiful to downright hillbillified. The piece has, is, everything. When it was over, my friend and I walked back to our offices without speaking, partly because we couldn't, and partly because there was nothing to say.
Outside on the plaza named for another Staatsoper director (a whole different set of ties to the rubble, the rebuilding, the orchestra, my oldest colleagues) there was music and chatter and traffic, the smells of the sausage stands, people licking at the first ice creams of the year and running for the tram. The world is coming to an end. Yes, always. I took a deep breath and stepped into the Ring.