The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's recent performance Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9 in D Major, under the direction of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, was a fine case for the brilliance of the composer's work and the world-class quality we have come to expect from the CSO. The works of Gustav Mahler can be frustrating, even (I'm guessing) to his most ardent devotees. His major works number very few, consisting of nine symphonies (a tenth well short of complete at the time of his death) and some lieder, but it's hard to think of a more divisive composer. The spectrum of reaction to Mahler's work is probably greater than any other composer, primarily because of the unevenness of his symphonies and the special elements in them. Each symphony, particularly from the second on, is too long and contains extraneous material.
Like his primary influence, Wagner, Mahler is always trying to work something out in his symphonies, but unlike the egomania that accompanies Wagner's work (which is stretched out due to the fact that he could never avoid making a mess out of the librettos), Mahler's work is affected more by a sincere attempt to find inspiration, resulting in sprawling messes with patches of incandescence. (The same could be said for Wagner's work, but that composer's facility is more obvious.) The sheer scale of Mahler's work has inspired a fervent cult that reveres him on par with composers safely enshrined in the canonical hierarchy of giants, but also breeds hatred among others for the mediocrity contained within them.
The Ninth Symphony stands as Mahler's valedictory, the evidence that Mahler was able to once work out everything he was trying to in his efforts to transform the genre of the symphony. Despite the fact that the symphony of extraordinary length (nearly 90 minutes on average), it contains virtually none of the longueurs and puzzlers that fill the other symphonies. Although it is a radical work musically, its structure is very conservative; Mahler returns to the four movement structure, not five, or six, or the two “parts” that make up the Eighth, and he avoids any Beethoven-inspired vocal component which he used in past works to varied effect. It's as if he had taken everything he learned after writing his First Symphony (probably the only other work in his oeuvre that avoids these excesses) and managed make a longer version of the First Symphony, a relatively short four-movement work with no vocal contribution.
The symphony's first movement is perhaps the finest thing Mahler ever wrote, a simple beautiful melody that gradually sweeps across the orchestra, swelling and deflating at various intervals. Here, Tilson Thomas heldback the power of the orchestra until that first great crescendo, which suggested that a little excess was exactly what was called for. This demonstration of power wasn't showy, but rather one that seemed appropriate. I had never seen the symphony performed live before, and though it's not unusual to see large sections of the orchestra at rest, it's remarkable how sections remained inactive as long as they did, only to become active briefly and become inactive again.
The piece features various muted instruments (including a muted tuba, amusing visceral evidence of Mahler's desire to get a specfic effect), extensive use of the triangle (a Mahler signature), and an overall size that rivals any other work. It's a testament to Mahler's eye for detail that he could focus on so many tiny effects, delivered at the right moment, and his demand that the members of the orchestra do whatever he ask at whatever time he ask, whenever he deemed they were needed. The CSO, whose experience with Mahler is on par with probably any orchestra in the world, in no small part due to having close involvement with several premier Mahler conductors (Solti, Abbado, Giulini, Levine, Boulez, Haitink), and their facility with this lengthy, complicated piece is evident. The symphony's final movement is a passionate, moving statement that showcases the CSO's string section, a component of the orchestra that is considered “merely” excellent, at their most impassioned best.
The program began with a piece composed by Igor Stravinsky in memory of John F. Kennedy, Elegy to JFK, a piece that featured only the orchestra's three clarinetists and mezzo-soprano soloist Kelley O'Connor, singing the text of a poem by W.H. Auden in memory of Kennedy that Stravinsky used as an accompaniment. Given the fact that this series of performances coincided with the fiftieth year anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination (and the day on which I attended the sperformance was the exact day, November 22, of the assassination), it was a fitting prelude.
photo credits: Todd Rosenberg