(Town Hall, Birmingham , February 5th 2011, Photos from the rehearsal by Russ Escritt)
Uri Caine’s re-imaginings of Mahler can spark violently contradictory reactions in people. I could sense, for example, that two other listeners and I, sitting just a few feet apart from one another in Birmingham Town Hall last night, were in very different worlds.
Behind me, one listener was finding the grooves irresistible. But unfortunately for me he had chosen one of the hind legs of my chair as his bass drum pedal. Meanwhile, the person next to me, having sat immobile and impassive throughout most of both halves, suddenly made a grimace of pain at a particularly loud moment, raised both his hands to his ears, grabbed his overcoat, waited till the piece was over, and scarpered for the exit.
And then there was me. These reactions around me made me try to list what it is about Caine’s Mahler that draws me into it so much. I know it well from records, where it can capture a particular mood. But in concert I found it had me completely hooked in at least five ways:
-The emotions are engaged by moments of intense beauty, such as the Adagietto from Symphony No 5, in which Uri Caine’s long and beautifully phrased Jarrett-ish piano, Chris Batchelor‘s ability to grow within a phrase, Jozefina Vergara ‘s stylish violin-playung and Steve Watts’ perfectly weighted enunciation of every first beat were just spell-binding.
-But Caine also encourages, demands detachment and irony. Somehow his Mahler in performance becomes more than just a commentary on Mahler’s original, it is its own open-ended critique on cultural traditions, on religious associations in music, on performing traditions….
-It can at the same time be intensely serious and absurdly, self-mockingly funny. Rabbi Gershon Silins brought his dignity to the Hebrew incantations all the way from Toronto. But DJ Olive was often there to provide a subversive commentary.
-The rhythmic senses get going too. At the tempo Caine takes it, and with Jim Black‘s propulsion, the beat, the groove, the sheer physicality of the headlong rush into the “Ging Heut’ Morgen” section of the first movement of Mahler 1 are hard to describe. They have to be experienced.
-What Caine does with the music keeps the listener’s brain constantly alert. What Mahler did in his symphonies was suddenly, impetuously to grab hold of a new idea. Caine extends that method, but his frame of reference is broader. With the tonal palette Caine has he can both out-angry and out-sugar Mahler: no mean feat. I found my mind frequently going into overdrive thinking about one pattern, or a new electronic sound from DJ Olive, to realise that the music had already moved on.
These were just some of my mental meanderings (I will spare LondonJazz readers an obscure reverie about Mahler’s friend Bruno Walter who performed in Birmingham Town Hall in 1933). The gig had other strong associations for other people. Uri Caine dedicated it to the memory of Tony Levin, whose loss from among us is felt everywhere, but particularly in Birmingham, where his contribution to the scene has been unequalled. Tony Dudley-Evans (kudos to him) has a personal association with the project. It was the first ticketed gig promoted by Birmingham Jazz at the then-new CBSO Centre in 1997.
Wherever the mind may wander, what a privilege the experience of live music like this is.
Uri Caine Meets Mahler was co-produced by Birmingham Jazz and Birmingham Town Hall Symphony Hall.