Review: Mahler’s landmark Ninth Symphony reaches new and revealing depth in two major Los Angeles performances

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the last work he completed and his most personal, goes in and out of goodnight. He wrote it after the death of his young daughter and after learning of his diagnosis of heart disease, which turned out to be fatal. The result is an abstract symphony containing his last, deepest and most enduring thoughts.

“Death, on placid cat’s paws, has entered the room,” I wrote of the fantastic effect Michael Tilson Thomas achieved when he began a memorable performance of this Ninth with the San Francisco Symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2005. .

Many years later at Disney, this last Sunday afternoon, Tilson Thomas conducted Mahler’s Ninth with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, ending the second of his two weeks with the orchestra. This time there are no placid cat paws. The symphony begins like life itself. Firstly, a small hint on the cellos emulates a tiny, barely audible heartbeat. A melody gradually evolves, note by note on the strings. A horn answers, looking fondly at the new life. Tilson Thomas savored everything. His pace was more patient than it had been 18 years before. The orchestra, at once transparent yet extravagantly luxurious, produced a richly textured sound with such a presence that you felt like you could reach out and touch it.

At 107 minutes, it was an unusually slow performance, but one that allowed Mahler full time for extreme swings of emotion, from the dazzling smell of roses to outbursts of uncontrolled angst. Tilson Thomas displayed unwavering patience, always gently guiding Mahler back to deep peace.

There are as many ways to interpret and listen to the Novena as there are interpretations and listeners. Again, as life itself and as only the most meaningful and significant art can convey, the symphony has an essence too mysterious and transcendental to be fully revealed. It can never be taken lightly, and in my experience, the LA Phil never has.

Although labeled the Columbia Symphony for contractual reasons, LA Phil musicians recorded the Ninth in 1961 conducted by Bruno Walter, who had premiered the symphony a year after Mahler’s death half a century earlier. That recording is said to have launched the modern Mahler revival.

The first LA Phil Mahler 9 (and the first too) in 1969 was a solemn performance by British Mahlerian John Barbirolli a few months before his death. Carlo Maria Giulini’s performance in 1975 was so moving that it sparked false rumors that the Italian director must be dying.

Zubin Mehta and Simon Rattle produced life-affirming vital ninths. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Ninth Progressive brilliantly revealed the extent to which Mahler’s last testament was also a new map of where music could (and did) go in the 20th century. A bold 29-year-old Gustavo Dudamel began 2011 conducting his first Novena in his second season as LA Phil Music Director and then boldly took it on his first European tour with the orchestra.

Tilson Thomas has now added something new and different that cannot be put into words. It hardly sounded like an interpretation. He left Mahler alone. That’s not to say that Tilson Thomas didn’t do his bidding or leave his ego in his dressing room. His was not only an expert display of directing, but also a display of what might be called his Mahler-loving eye on all his magnificent contradictions.

The symphony is often portrayed as one of the most revealing depictions of the psychological process of finding peace, as everything that comes together in the symphony, its very life force, eventually comes to its natural end as it slowly wanes into silence. Not a silence, however, of nothing, but one of something, the equivalent of white light that contains all colors. Mahler becomes, in the end, one with the universe.

The weekend was exceptional, Mahler Ninth, in another sense. Like the LA Phil at Disney, the Pacific Symphony at the RenĂ©e and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall also dedicated its three weekend concerts to Mahler’s Ninth. Attending the Saturday night performance made possible the rare opportunity to see two major performances of Mahler’s Ninth in less than 24 hours.

The Orange County Orchestra may not have the resources of the LA Phil (no orchestra in the United States does), but its music director, Carl St. Clair, has been a devout Mahlerian during his 33 years as music director of an orchestra that elevated to meaning. And he himself is on a Mahler 9 kick. In addition to being music director in Costa Mesa, he is also in Costa Rica, where he serves as principal conductor of the country’s National Symphony Orchestra. He closed the 2022 season of that orchestra with the Ninth. Next, on January 27, St.Clair will once again conduct the Ninth with the USC Thornton Symphony, for which he is also Principal Conductor.

The Pacific Symphony’s performance offered a completely different perspective on Mahler. St.Clair introduced the symphony describing it as a journey of suffering, from understanding to reflection, from joy in life to resignation. He did not direct it from inside Mahler, but as an outside observer, showing us how Mahler felt rather than making us feel how the great composer felt.

This was a forceful performance. The sound had power. The climaxes were explosive. The instrumental solos on the LA Phil conveyed a wonderful sense of freedom within a whole. The Pacific Symphony impressed by how his solos stood out. It was all theater. The two central movements, full of lively dances in the first and burlesque in the carnival style in the second, became orchestral masterpieces.

By placing a large video screen above the stage, the Pacific Symphony added close-ups of the performers and conductor, further adding to the theatrics. In the end, the camera stayed on St. Clair for a full minute of silence, his face contorted in pain, taking in the significance of what had happened, holding back the applause. The sentimentality worked, stopping just short of turning maudlin. This was a devastating performance that later came to a different ending. Then we could go out in the rain again.

Tilson Thomas did not speak to the audience. While St. Clair’s heart was comfortable and even impressive on his sleeve, there was no mind-reading for Tilson Thomas, for he himself suffers, like Mahler did when he wrote the Ninth, from a life-threatening illness. . In the end, he just stopped. No dramatic moment of silence. Nothing more to say. No sentimentality. The universe goes about its own business. All that was left was for Tilson Thomas to show his warm appreciation of the orchestra, which he had played with what can only be called love. That warmth carried over to a stunned audience (there was hardly an empty seat) was unmistakable.

In the end, on the once-in-a-lifetime ninth Sunday afternoon, Tilson Thomas was in a class and in a place of his own. In Judaism, it would be called, for those who heard it, those who played it, and those who will listen to it in the future (microphones hung above the stage), a mitzvah, a divine good deed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *