BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
ST. PETERSBURG — Stefan Sanderling is not a big listener to recordings. The sound system in his St. Petersburg house is nothing special — a small Panasonic model that he bought in a pawnshop — and for someone who stands in front of symphony orchestras for a living, recorded music is probably a pretty poor imitation of the real thing.
Still, the music director of the Florida Orchestra was happy to sit down with me last Friday morning at home and listen to a historic recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection). Sanderling will be conducting the work this weekend in the orchestra's final masterworks concerts of the season.
"I try to avoid this,'' Sanderling said of listening to a recording of music he'll be conducting, because he doesn't want to be influenced by another conductor's interpretation. "The danger is too big that you'll take something that you like, or not take something you don't like, and it becomes a mishmash.''
Sanderling, with the score in hand, pointed out the slow tempo Bernstein brought to a lush melody in the strings in the second movement. "You see, this tempo. That's not Mahler. It's beautiful, but it's not Mahler. It's Bernstein,'' he said.
Bernstein was a great champion of Mahler, performing his nine symphonies in the 1960s and '70s when the composer was out of fashion. Bernstein's first Mahler cycle was recently reissued in a 12-CD set from Sony. Originally released in 1967 as a leather-bound edition of 13 LPs, it was the first complete set of Mahler symphonies ever made.
"This was not only a landmark in recording history but enormously influential throughout the musical world, for Bernstein's inspired advocacy had finally placed Mahler's works squarely into the standard repertory,'' critic Tim Page writes in a liner note.
Mahler's grandiose symphonies were perfect for Bernstein's emotional style. "Mahler did incredible things for Bernstein,'' Sanderling said. "It came in so handy for Bernstein's personality, the need, the desire to express himself. To live the big emotions. This music is made for it.''
Bernstein's celebrity helped, too. "What Bernstein did for Mahler's music was the public relations,'' Sanderling said. "He made it chic, he made it interesting.''
Growing up in communist East Germany, where his father, Kurt Sanderling, was an eminent conductor, Sanderling was not exposed to the Bernstein recordings of Mahler — plus he was only 3 years old when they came out. He did meet Bernstein in 1987 when the conductor brought the Amsterdam Concertgebuow Orchestra on tour to East Berlin to play Mahler's First Symphony. Bernstein then was at the peak of his fame.
"It was like a god was in town,'' said Sanderling, then a student, who was hired to be a guide for the conductor and his retinue. "I remember I was supposed to make sure that he came in time to the concert. In East Germany the concert started at 8 p.m., and at 7:58 I was still waiting for him at the hotel. I told him, 'We have to go, the concert starts at 8.' And Bernstein said, 'The concert starts when I am there.' ''
Two years later, Sanderling was a conducting student at the Tanglewood Music Festival in western Massachusetts, where Bernstein taught before his death in 1990. But by that time, the celebrated maestro was in self-destructive decline, a glass of whiskey and cigarette constantly with him.
"You can't really learn from a conductor like Bernstein as a teacher, because he has it from God,'' Sanderling said. "He has acquired it without a method. He's a genius. If you are genius, you can't teach another person to be a genius.''
Sanderling compares Bernstein to the legendary German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, also renowned for his epic readings of the symphonic repertoire.
"I think that with Bernstein it's a little like with Furtwangler,'' he said. "That only exists once. Everybody else is a follower. Nobody can imitate Furtwangler or Bernstein. What they have in common is that they created music out of the moment. What Bernstein does has nothing to do with what is written in the score. But it still has a lot to do with Mahler. Sometimes I almost would say maybe it is even better than what Mahler has written.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He writes for Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.