Mahler musings

Former JSO conductor Leon Botstein returns to Jerusalem for a Mahler bash

 LEON BOTSTEIN:  Symphony no. 6 is an impressive symphonic experience and it is extremely gratifying to play. (Matt Dine) (photo credit: MATT DINE)
LEON BOTSTEIN: Symphony no. 6 is an impressive symphonic experience and it is extremely gratifying to play. (Matt Dine)
(photo credit: MATT DINE)

Leon Botstein is back. Just over a decade after he ended his tenure as music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO) the Swiss-American conductor, scholar and educator is making a return to the podium at the Jerusalem Theatre on January 19 at 7:30 p.m. The program for the evening sees him guiding the ensemble through a reading of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 6, prefaced by the Viennese composer’s arrangements of a couple of Bach suites.

It has been a long furlough for Botstein and he is happy to reunite with his former charges for the concert, with the promise of lots more to come as he takes up his position as JSO principal guest conductor and conductor laureate. “The orchestra is in excellent shape,” he says. “There are, of course, some new players and there are also some members I know from back then. It sounds very good.”

The orchestra’s CEO, Ofer Amsalem, is delighted with the professional rendezvous. “Maestro Leon Botstein is dear to the orchestra, he was the music director of the JSO for many years and saved the orchestra during one of the most challenging periods in its history.”

The conductor remembers that trying passage well but also retains the satisfaction he took from a job well done. “The years when I was music director of the JSO were exciting and unforgettable,” he notes. “Those were intense times, the orchestra was exploring a very demanding and fascinating repertoire, and performed many high-quality concerts.”

In fact, there were other mines to be negotiated in an effort to keep the JSO ship afloat. “The orchestra was a radio orchestra and we broadcast all over the country and to the United States. But we were caught in a political trap and the beneficiaries were not the musicians,” says Botstein. “We were caught in the crossfire between various vested interests in Israel and philanthropic interests from abroad.”

There were plenty of balls to be juggled and kept in flight at the same time. “We were burdened with a lot of extraneous political ambitions and funding issues.”

That doesn’t sound like an environment that is particularly conducive to creative work and putting the orchestra’s best foot forward. “There’s no such thing as an easy life,” Botstein observes, “but the situation was fixable. We went to great lengths to fix it, the debts, taking the orchestra out of receivership, and getting it back on its feet.”

He not only stabilized matters he launched the ensemble on to bigger and better things. “We broadened the artistic profile. It was enjoyable and difficult. I am grateful for that time,” he chuckles. It was a matter of shaking things up and infusing the orchestra with some new refreshing breath. “We brought in new repertoire and we had a rethink, concert wise. We did really interesting things,” says Botstein with a hint of merited pride. “We aimed for artistic distinction.”

That remains a goal, all these years down the road. “I haven’t changed my views about the repertoire. We should be more focused on trying to draw the audience into something they can’t experience at home or on their devices.”

I wondered whether that included helping to get some of the latest work by local composers out there. Botstein has no objections on that front but says, for now, that isn’t at the top of his professional agenda. “I haven’t had the time to follow Israeli contemporary works,” he says.

Symphony for all

CONSIDERING HE holds down a pretty demanding day job as president of the liberal arts Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and devotes a good deal of time and effort to reviving and promoting neglected repertoire and composers, one can forgive him for not keeping abreast of compositional developments over here. He also frequently occupies the conductor’s dais, including with the American Symphony Orchestra, and oversees the Bard Music Festival. We should be thankful he found the time to pop over here for a long-awaited reunion with the JSO.

With an intriguing masterclass program running over at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, which takes an in-depth look at the work of Gustav Mahler and some of his successors in the early-mid 20th century, it is beginning to look like the start of a Mahler season in the capital.

So why did Botstein opt for Symphony no. 6 for his return here? “Six and seven are the most interesting [of Mahler’s symphonies],” he states, “and until quite recently, the least played.” Reason enough. “It is an impressive symphonic experience and it is extremely gratifying to play.”

Botstein clearly knows his Mahler.

“The Sixth Symphony is sometimes called the Tragic symphony,” he adds.” At the time, he was married to Alma Mahler. That was a troubled relationship.” 

That is well documented. Alma, a composer in her own right, was 19 years younger than her husband. They had two daughters, one of whom died of scarlet fever at the age of five. Suffering from depression, she sought solace in other extramarital arms.

The depth of emotion Mahler must have experienced in his unhappy marriage came through powerfully in his scores, including in the symphony that serves as the centerpiece of this evening’s concert. The work incorporates the customary four movements, although there has been a great deal of discussion and opinionated toing and froing over the sequence down the years. 

“There has been controversy over the order of the movements,” Botstein explains. “We will play the andante second and the scherzo third, as they should be. There is now a consensus about that.”

The hors d’oeuvre features Mahler’s arrangements of a couple of Bach charts. Botstein notes that a year after Symphony no. 6 premiered, in 1907, Mahler left his position as head of Vienna’s Imperial Opera and relocated stateside. Mahler was apparently determined to make his mark from the off. “He began his tenure as a conductor in New York. For a set of historical concerts, Mahler arranged movements from two of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suites, which were only rarely performed. The composer was seeking to educate the New York audience in the great European tradition of Classical music.”

That informed Botstein’s program choices for his JSO reprise. “One can therefore view this concert as a musical journey to the four years prior to Mahler’s death, showing his view of past and present, and of the world around him.”

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