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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Concert Review: A New Baton For Mahler's Threnody

Sean Newhouse.
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Saturday night's concert at Symphony Hall featured Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Sean Newhouse leading the third of four performances of Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Mr. Newhouse is a 30-year-old American conductor, who left the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 2010 to assist BSO music director James Levine. He was promoted to the podium following 11th-hour back problems that incapacitated Mr. Levine, forcing the 68-year-old maestro to cancel his appearances this weekend.

The Mahler Ninth is a dark symphony, containing forebodings of the composer's imminent death. Although it is in four movements, its atypical structure (with the slow movements coming first and last and two fast movements in the middle) presents challenges to any conductor. The outer movements required the building of long, shining bridges of sound, delicate structures of strings and wind that breathe and yearn with longing. The central scherzo and Rondo-burleske walk the line between sentiment and grotesque parody.

Mr. Newhouse proved himself up to the task on Saturday night, leading a vigorous performance that balanced the extremes of this long, difficult work. From the faltering heartbeat that starts the first movement to the final, shimmering violin figures of the last few bars, Mr. Newhouse was firmly in control of his orchestra. But the young conductor did more than just beat time--he offered his own interpretation of the work, making Mahler's last completed symphony a profound and deeply humanistic statement.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the third movement. Marked Rondo-Burleske, its bizarre structure allows Mahler to vent his rage with bitter irony. But under Mr. Newhouse, the burlesque became a subtle, almost Bach-like fugue. The theme was tossed nimbly from section to section. The entire orchestra took flight as the trumpets (led by principal Thomas Rolfs) came in to soothe the conflict, playing a warm, comforting theme. The entire orchestra took up this new theme, until a blast of brass and percussion ended the Rondo where it began.

The last Adagio expresses something far more difficult: the infinite. A heart-wrenching melody in the cellos sings out. It extends into a lengthy contemplation which includes quotes from three (and possibly four) other Mahler works. Robert Sheena's English horn offered thoughtful commentary throughout. And the harp part maintained Mahler's faltering heart-beat played by principal Jessica Zhou.

Mahler left his final thoughts to the strings, led by concertmaster Malcome Lowe. Given the late substitution on the podium, Mr. Lowe's role in the success of this performance cannot be overstated. As the great orchestra faded, brass players put down their horns, and percussionists laid their mallets to rest. All that was left were the strings, playing quiet bits of melody that quoted from Mahler's Kindertotenlieder. The great sonic space of Symphony Hall was suddenly empty of all but those thin musical threads. Mr. Newhouse slowly lowered his arms, and the piece ended in profound, reverent silence.

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