Wednesday, May 18, 2011

When Mahler Took Manhattan

by Peter G. Davis

New York Times
May 17, 2011

Here's an often overlooked bit of music history: Gustav Mahler, who died in Vienna a century ago today, was a New Yorker for the last three years of his life and, for that brief time, arguably the most famous musician in town. It’s not a trivial point — as a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and then at the New York Philharmonic, he set musical standards that resonate even today.

New York has always held its conductors in chief close. Mahler was followed by Arturo Toscanini, who ruled the musical scene for nearly half a century. New York’s love affair with Leonard Bernstein was long and adoring, while James Levine is no less appreciated today, as we celebrate his 40 years at the Met and worry over his health.

Despite his short time among us, Mahler left as large a footprint as his successors. Already a world-famous composer and conductor, he was hired by the Met in 1907, and he arrived with a reputation as an autocrat who demanded nothing less than perfection.

In his previous post at the Vienna Court Opera, this newspaper reported at the time, this “martinet” had “reformed everything ... He was orchestral conductor, singer, actor, stage manager, scenic painter, costumer.” Worse still, Mahler was rumored to be a difficult, even neurotic personality more interested in composing endless symphonies no one wanted to hear than in working in an opera house.

All that was bad news for Met artists and administrators accustomed to more easygoing managers. They were also used to conductors who specialized in one style, be it Mozart, Wagner or the latest contemporary novelties. Mahler could do them all, and expected his performers to follow suit.


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