Star Pupil in Tails Conducts Mahler
with Alasdair Neale
Hannover Neue Presse
February 5, 1999
By Henning Queren
A rescuer in tails: star maestro Michael Tilson Thomas had the flu (104 degree fever), and could not conduct the San Francisco Symphony in the sold-out Kuppelsaal. In his place, a young, unknown conductor, Alasdair Neale (36), conducted a Mahler symphony of the highest caliber.
It's always like this with the star pupils: as soon as the master is not around, they become fearless. Things can go wrong (as in the Goethe-ballad) or it turns into a giant success (as in the Kuppelsaal). The challenge is enormous: Mahler's five movement Fifth Symphony belongs among the highest peaks of the mountains of the symphonic world. With a length of over an hour, it places extreme demands on orchestra as well as conductor.
Neale approached Mahler from an emotional perspective, loosening and tightening the symphonic reigns more than usual. The famous Adagietto (heard in the Visconti film Death in Venice) was stretched to a full twelve minutes, the usual is a maximum of eight. In the third movement, he fully realized the score's instruction "Stürmisch bewegt, mit grosser Vehemenz" until the ears began to hurt.
His interpretation and style of conducting reminded on a bit of the great Leonard Bernstein. Neale, conducting without baton, occasionally opened his arms so wide as if to embrace the entire orchestra. He played the air violin when the strings were very busy and stomped his feet to the entrances of the percussion.
Reservations arose only in the quality of the orchestra. The musicians from San Francisco do not belong to the world-class American orchestras like Chicago or Boston just yet. Too many mistakes in the brass section ensured that fact. The first trumpet had a miserable day, probably due to the flu, quite often missing notes by far.
Flawless: Before the intermission, first-rate violinist Gil Shaham played Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, a work of late-romantic gluttony bordering on film-music.