Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Authenticity, the Mahler 9th, and the Pursuit of Perfection

Bruce S. Zahn Ed.D ABPP

I vividly remember the first time that I heard the Mahler Symphony No. 9, in the early 1970s, with Carlo Maria Guilini conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Guilini was an elegant and distinguished Italian who had carved an admirable opera and symphonic conducting career, and was genuinely beloved by most musical artists with whom he worked. He was a man who conveyed sincere passion and deep inspiration to his fellow musicians. That was brought into sharp focus when I heard him conduct during the performance that I attended.  Guilini accomplished his magic completely by memory - nearly 90 minutes of complex symphonic music written to convey the composer's last musical argument articulating his angst, neurotic doubts, and thoughts about mortality in a world at the turn-of-the-19th century that was changing before his very eyes. I can still see Maestro Guilini waiting for what seemed like at least 30 seconds of silence after the very last quivering note, standing on the podium with his eyes closed, sweat pouring down from his forehead, then turning from the orchestra and nearly staggering offstage in emotional exhaustion.  I was so overcome by the beauty of the symphony itself, Guilini's magnificent performance and the emotion of the moment that I did not have any recollection of how perfectly or imperfectly the musicians had executed the musical notes on the printed score. It was a moment in time that stood frozen forever in my mind and my heart.
During the course of my life, I have been privileged to have heard many subsequent performances of this great musical classic of the 20th century. Conductors I have heard perform it include Levine, Kubelik, Haitink, Bernstein, and Von Karajan.  In addition to live performances, I have collected and heard scores of other performances on CD by conductors too numerous to mention here. But for the purposes of this brief essay, I would like to focus on live performances recorded by two of the greatest interpreters of our time: Leonard Bernstein, and Herbert von Karajan. Both performances were captured live with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and have been issued on CD by Deutsche Gramophone.  I heard Bernstein lead this work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood during approximately the same time his recording was made, and I also heard von Karajan perform it with the Berlin Philharmonic on tour at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The von Karajan performance and recording has been dubbed by critics as one of the greatest symphonic recordings of the 20th century and a true desert island masterpiece.  The Bernstein performance and recording is unique in that it was the only time that he, a Jew, ever agreed to appear in Germany to conduct the Berlin players. The Berlin Philharmonic at that time was von Karajan's orchestra, and they were considered to be peerless among the world's elite symphony orchestras.

When it was announced that the Berlin Philharmonic was coming on tour to the US with a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall, I leapt at the opportunity to get tickets to hear the aging maestro conduct the great Mahler 9th. It was like trying to get tickets to a Rolling Stones concert, with hours and hours of dialing and redialing TickeTron until I finally got through and scored my tickets. When the day of the concert came, people were lined up outside of Carnegie Hall flashing hundred dollars bills wanting to buy tickets from scalpers or ticket holders, as if their very existence depended on hearing that symphony. If you've never heard a concert inside Carnegie Hall, it is truly one of the world's miracles of sound. Wherever you sit, you can hear perfectly homogenized sound with every detail in high relief. It truly is one of the great experiences of a lifetime and an opportunity to hear great music played in one of the greatest venues on earth.  Von Karajan was the epitome of the German ideal of control, precision, and perfection in every technical aspect of musical performance, and he drove his orchestra to produce musical performances that reflected those ideals. If the Philadelphia Orchestra was considered to be the Rolls Royce of orchestras, then the Berlin Philharmonic was the Lamborghini. The combination of hearing this orchestra, with this conductor, at Carnegie Hall promised to be truly an exceptional experience.
Von Karajan was known as an obsessive perfectionist who sought to control every detail of musical performance and production in pursuit of glorified perfection.  His ideals and values of perfection may be seen within the context of the Germanic history of idealization of the ultimate quest for beauty in its purest essence.  In many cases, such demand for perfection might lead to mannered and self-conscious performances that are more reflective of perfection in sound itself, to the detriment of "soul" in the music, but for this conductor, he was often able to combine mastery of sound and beauty of musical expression. That said, I recall feeling a bit let down after von Karajan's performance.  Sure it was perfectly gorgeous, but frankly, it left me more than a bit cold. It stood in stark contrast to Guilini's gut-wrenching traversal for me, and gave me something to ponder for many years about the value of perfection, and whether or not that is an ideal worth seeking at the expense of authenticity.

Several years after the Carnegie Hall performance and subsequent recorded performance from the Berlin's concert hall, the Philharmonie, Bernstein's live performance with the Berlin Phil was released on CD on the same record label. The recording quality is quite different, not as smooth and balanced as the von Karajan, but more noticeable is the raw emotion and lack of technical perfection. It was a gritty performance, full of emotive, heart-on-the sleeve breast-beating for which Bernstein was famous. Indeed, Bernstein used to say that when he was on the podium, he felt as if he WAS Mahler, experiencing all of his pain and ecstasy in the moment. There are some rough instrumental attacks and jagged entrances-not at all the type of pretty, yet somehow emotionally sterile playing from the very same orchestra that von Karajan elicited. It was Bernstein at his best, an exhausting performance of emotional extremes, dragging the listener through the composer's personal torment until he reaches reconciliation with death with breathtaking glimpses of the horizon beyond earthly life and ultimate peace.
What is the point of this musical treatise and performance review, and what does it have to teach us about psychology?  First of all, it goes without saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that perception is everything. I am only expressing my personal views about these performances and the meaning that I extract from them. That said, I think that it can tell us something about the advantages and disadvantages of demanding perfection in our own lives and activities, and give us something to consider when we are trapped by our efforts to desperately pursue the illusion of perfection at the cost of authentic self-expression in the here and now. For sure, the more that we pursue perfection in our lives, the more likely we are to be disappointed by its slippery nature.

Unlike conducting a symphony orchestra, not all of the variables at our disposal are usually under our complete direct control. Human error is part of our daily experience. We live with imperfection in every moment, yet the more that we tell ourselves that it is a requirement in order to validate our worth, the more frustrated and depressed we may be. On the other hand, living in the moment and expressing ourselves without self-consciousness can be incredibly liberating, albeit challenging. There is a direct parallel here, in my mind, to the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.   Steven Hayes, in his popular workbook, Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life[1], articulates that ACT is about developing a willingness to embrace every experience that life has to offer by feeling emotions completely, based on personal values that matter the most to each individual.  These ideas were also expressed many years ago in a book called the Inner Game of Music[2], which many conservatory musicians have been exposed to in order to mediate the conflict between seeking the perfect performance AND emotional authenticity. In essence, the take away from this book and the training that it promotes is that the more that one strives for perfection, the more one becomes self-conscious and self-critical, and less free to maximize self-expression, risk-taking in the moment, and emotional authenticity. Ironically, striving for perfection opens one up to a greater possibility of error, as one remains distracted by hypervigilance! The willingness to take risks and the willingness to embrace the possibility of one's imperfection actually enhances the experience of being in the emotional moment, increasing authenticity and self-esteem. A fascinating paradoxical byproduct of this is that technical performance can be enhanced.

So what lessons can we take away from these observations? Surely with the emphasis today on technical expertise, precision, and outcomes, many of us strive for the ideal of perfection. However, this does not necessarily equate with satisfaction, self-esteem, self-confidence, and genuineness in self-expression. The ability to live in the moment, knowing that at any time we might hit a wrong note, make an awkward entrance, or even be a little sharp or flat, elevates our experience and enriches our interactions as authentic beings in an imperfect world. And that should be music to almost anyone's ears!

[1] Hayes, S. & Smith, S. (2005).  Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.  New Harbinger Publications.
[2] Green, B. & Gallwey, W. T. (1986).  The Inner Game of Music. New York: Doubleday.
Bruce S. Zahn Ed.D ABPP- "Celebrity" Guest Blogger. Professor and Director of Clinical Training in the PsyD in clinical psychology program. He is a former trumpeter, having studied with Seymour Rosenfeld, second trumpeter with the Philadelphia Orchestra, during his youth.  He is an avowed classical music and opera fanatic, with a penchant for the music of Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner, among many others.  Students are invited to swing by his office almost anytime to catch a daily concert when he is not in meetings or engaged in class preparation.

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