Alan Gilbert, Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, was an unexpected guest this past weekend at Severance Hall. Pierre Boulez had been announced as the guest conductor, but a few weeks ago he was forced to cancel his appearance for medical reasons. Mr Gilbert, who was an assistant conductor to Christoph von Dohnányi in Cleveland in the 1990s, was engaged to take Boulez’s place, and the announced program remained: Ravel’s complete Ma mère l’oye (“Mother Goose”) ballet music and Mahler’s Symphony no. 7. It was a typically Boulezian program, all of which the esteemed Frenchman has performed with The Cleveland Orchestra in the past. One did not envy Gilbert the comparisons that inevitably would be made; however, he and the orchestra acquitted themselves admirably.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee

The Ravel and Mahler works both date from the first decade of the 20th century and show off the virtuosity of a great orchestra, yet they could hardly be more different. Ravel’s work is a series of jewel-like miniatures, each exquisitely and delicately orchestrated, painting specific musical images. Mahler’s enigmatic Seventh Symphony sprawls over 70 minutes in a hallucinatory musical architecture that almost defies comprehension by the ordinary listener.

Each of the seven movements of Ravel’s ballet, which began its life as a suite of pieces for piano duet, has its own charm, beginning with distant horn calls in the “Prelude” and the awakening of the birds and other forest creatures. The “Spinning Song” is jaunty, with the perpetual motion of the spinning wheel that causes Sleeping Beauty to prick her finger and fall into a deep sleep. The “Pavane” is a stately processional, followed by the sleeping princess’ dream about Beauty and the Beast, featuring Jonathan Sherwin on contrabassoon. Likewise, “Tom Thumb” had beautiful cor anglais solos by Robert Walters. The chinoiserie of “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas”, was charming, with Ravel’s very fashionable (for his time) use of pentatonic scales, celesta cadenzas (played here by principal keyboardist Joela Jones) and sparkling percussion effects. “The Enchanted Garden” closes the work, with a solo violin (played by Associate Concertmaster Peter Otto) representing the handsome prince who awakens Sleeping Beauty, brass fanfares echoing the music of the earlier pavane. Mr Gilbert and the orchestra gave a performance of detail and subtlety.

Time and again in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony one finds oneself saying, “What’s going on here?” Even by Mahler’s own lavish standards there is a superabundance of musical materials that, although using traditional musical forms such as sonata and rondo, are assembled and developed in unique ways. Is it a gigantic experiment looking toward the future of music in Mahler’s own way after the musical earthquake that was Richard Strauss’ Salome in 1905? Mahler himself is not helpful in his description of the symphony as “three night pieces; the finale, bright day. As a foundation for the whole, the first movement.” Mahler’s orchestration is just as thrilling and distinctive as Ravel’s, but totally different, with masses of sound from a huge orchestra rather than the delicacy of individual instruments. There are many featured soloists. (It was notable that during the curtain calls, Mr Gilbert asked most of the principal players and sections to take their own bows.) The first movement opens with a long solo on the tenor horn, with its distinctive sound. There are march-like rhythms suddenly juxtaposed with lyric passages. There are many musical digressions during the development of the musical materials, which are sometimes at the fringes of chromatic tonality.

The symphony’s three central movements are all depictions of night, although not in the eerie way that Bartók depicts night in his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Mahler instead revels in night as celebratory or nostalgic, perhaps a chance to hear the cowbells of the herd returning from the day’s grazing, or, as in the fourth movement, getting tipsy in a pub, with the violin accompanied by a guitar and mandolin, lending the dreamlike air.

The last movement (Rondo-Finale) features a theme that begins ambiguously but is developed at very great length and ultimately is transformed into music of triumph and joy, with bells of all kinds ringing out. It is music that defies indifference. A listener might not know exactly what Mahler is up to, but the music has an overall visceral impact that on Saturday night caused an immediate riotous and sustained ovation.