BOTH ERNEST SCHELLING AND GUSTAV MAHLER were composer-conductors, but the New Jersey-born Schelling, 16 years Mahler’s junior, made his name initially as a piano virtuoso. Despite many concert appearances, two years as conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, fifteen years of teaching and a number of published compositions, Schelling is as unknown as Mahler is revered.
We’re not talking one of your flashy show-off works. This isn’t Rachmaninoff, although there’s a feel of that composer’s style in the introduction, which showcases the soloist. I suspect Schelling wrote it this way to satisfy those expecting to see his virtuoso side. Intro out of the way, the work settles into a pleasing theme and 18 variations, each section paying tribute to a friend or concept. So we veer from a lighthearted nod to Fritz Kreisler, as piano and violas play a variation reminiscent of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 1, to a huge warlike segment with tattoos of trumpets and drums (this was the time of the Great War) that slams into the Dies irae, the familiar “day of wrath” melody from the Roman Missal.
Schelling’s style is decidedly European, pretty much the norm for American composers of his time, but his work also shows the influence of Impressionism in its orchestral color. He’s also in touch with Iberian influences: Variation 8 opens with castanets and tambourine accenting a Spanish rhythm, while Variation 12 salutes pianist-composer Enrique Granados with a whirlwind dance and some snazzy piano licks. And you do hear the stirrings of an American voice, too, as in a cheerfully Richard Rodgers-y fifth variation.
All in all, the work is a good-sized, action-packed trifle that deserves more attention. Many thanks to Boehm for championing the work in favor of a better-known virtuoso showcase. Miller marshalled his forces well, too. A couple of times the more unusual rhythms threw the group out of sync, but they quickly recovered. Boehm’s playing began with a burst of nervous energy that smoothed into a beautifully assured performance. Encore and record this piece, please.
After dessert came the main course. Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, “The Titan.” Booed at its first performance in 1889, it’s a crash (and crashing) course in the characteristics the composer refined into his later symphonies. I can sympathize with the lady at the premiere who was so startled by the eruption of the last movement that she dropped all the stuff she was holding. In the Troy Music Hall, the brass and percussion forces resonated very impressively.
And this is why we like Mahler’s music. It’s filled with contrasts and surprises, yet it conveys a sense of organic whole. Miller did a splendid job with it, encouraging the strings to phrase with Viennese lushness where appropriate, whipping the brass into splendid frenzies. And he understands the humor of the piece, a biting humor laced with parody – a word Mahler himself used in the score.
In the orchestra, the woodwinds were especially impressive. They had much to do in both pieces, and oboist Karen Hosmer was especially effective in her many solos. Occasional intonation problems struck the strings and brass, especially in the workout that Mahler’s finale gives to the latter, but overall it was an impressive show that ought to be getting a whole lot more exposure throughout the Capital Region.
Albany Symphony Orchestra
David Alan Miller, conductor
Troy Music Hall, March 13, 1998
– Metroland Magazine, 19 March 1998