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Friday, January 6, 2012

Concert Review: Bringing on the Heartbreak

Alan Gilbert conducts the Mahler Ninth.
Alan Gilbert leads the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2011 New York Philharmonic
For a professional conductor, leading Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony is a rite of passage. The composer's final completed work, the Ninth is a lengthy rumination on death and passage into the next world. It is built around descending, arrhythmic figures that (may) symbolize Mahler's own damaged heart. It is an important symphony, and all the more so if you happen to be music director of the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra Mahler led for two years before his death in 1911.

On Thursday night, current music director Alan Gilbert led this orchestra in their first Mahler Ninth together. The massive symphony was paired with the New York premiere of Polaris, a new work from prolific British composer Thomas Adés. Mr. Adés' work was a single movement. It opened with an ostinato figure on the piano, answered by orchestra bells, winds and strings. Then came long tones on the brass, with the players strategically located in the balconies of Avery Fisher Hall.

Mr. Gilbert led Polaris with tremendous focus, building Mr. Adés' complicated sonic textures from these components. Three heavy thumps from bass drum and tuba (recalling the opening of Richard Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten) paved the way for Mr. Adés' final stroke, a shimmering, coalesced A chord that built to fortissimo before suddenly cutting off. The audience received the new work (and its composer) with unaccustomed enthusiasm.

Mr. Gilbert, who teaches conducting at Juilliard, led a Mahler Ninth at this hall last spring, at the helm of the Juilliard Orchestra. For his first performance of the piece with the Philharmonic, the conductor took a professorial approach to the four movements. The opening Andante comodo, started promisingly, with clear textures in cello, muted trumpet, and that heartbeat figure on the two harps. But the later pages built to impressive volume but lacked a sense of resignation that suffuses the best performances of this movement.

This "academic" approach continued in the dance movement. This is Mahler's grim, final salute to the Austrian peasant dance, the ländler, used to express simple rural joy in his early Wunderhorn symphonies. The three sections were taken slowly. Details were rendered with great clarity, and skillfully played. But again, this pseudo-ländler lacked that burnished glow of nostalgia.

Matters improved in the Rondo-Burleske, taken at a (relatively) slow speed. Mr. Gilbert brought forth the rich detail hidden in these notes, bits of interplay that might be skimmed in a more hurried performance. The brief references to earlier Mahler symphonies were displayed like art in a gallery. In the last pages, as the Rondo sped up, the performance finally ignited.

The passion found in the closing pages of the third movement continued into the final Adagio. This has been mischaracterized as Mahler's "farewell to life" by a number of commentators. (If it were that, he would never have started a Tenth Symphony.) Here, it was a slow, aching rumination on everything that had gone before, with its signature rhythm repeated, slowly, haltingly by strings and wind with low support from the brass.

The coda started with a bated breath from players and audience. At Mr. Gilbert's signal, the cellos launched the last repetition of that faltering, descending rhythm. Answered by the higher strings and joined by a funereal choir of horns, the movement finally faded out mid-phrase.  Mr. Gilbert stood, arms raised. At last, he had penetrated the dark heart of the Ninth. The rest was silence.

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