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Thursday, March 7, 2019

Concert Review: Beyond the Realms of Death

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Mahler's Ninth Symphony.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
New world man: Michael Tilson Thomas.
Photo by Vahan Stepanyan from

Gustav Mahler once said that "a symphony must be like the world." His Symphony No. 9 (the composer's last complete work) moves well beyond earthly experience. On Wednesday night, Michael Tilson Thomas and the Vienna Philharmonic tried to wring every drop of meaning from its four sphinx-like movements in a sprawling performance at Carnegie Hall. Stretching the endurance of musicians, audience and the music itself, their efforts may have met with some success.

The Ninth will never be the most popular of Mahler symphonies. It is one of his most profound and innovative. Mahler reverses the traditional symphonic structure, placing the two slow movements on the outside of the giant structure. The first movement is marked Andante comodo, ("a comfortable walk.") Mr. Thomas adopted an ambling tempo, providing momentum from strings and harp in the characteristic faltering rhythm that dominates each movement of this work.

The Vienna players responded with rapturous, glowing tone from the strings, as the two violin sections joined the great, serene song. There were stirrings of symphonic violence but then the music slowed again, each go-round finding the pace slower at Mr. Thomas' direction. Textures were thinned, stretched and made transparent and still the glowing sound quality persisted, with the harp (plucked on its lowest strings) coming back to periodically mark time.

It is poetic poppycock to think of that "faltering" rhythm as the beating of Mahler's own damaged heart. Similarly, the two earthy middle movements are not some kind of farewell to life. (Mahler was a vigorous, hard-working man with no intention of going anywhere, and after he finished the Ninth he set right to work on the unfinished Tenth.) The first is a kind of pseudo-Ländler the hunkering Austrian peasant dance here re-imagined as a ghostly minor-key stomp with occasional outbursts of grimacing laughter from the full orchestra.

The Rondo-burleske was the only movement that Mr. Thomas took at its natural speed, revving the engines of the orchestra to crank up a veritable storm of sound. Here, the serenity of the first two movements was shattered as he cued the pummeling rhythms and brass interjections with the ease of a practiced matador. The orchestra capered and leered through Mahler's sardonic lurches and turns of musical phrase. Heavy percussion and brass supported this manic music, a preparation for the final mysteries of the last movement.

This movement, marked Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend ("very slowly and held back") is a kind of rondo too, though very different from its predecessor. This is a great slow song that repeats and repeats, rising on tides of orchestration to unassailable arcane heights where one's effort of listening and concentrating is finally rewarded with the clash of cymbals and a brief tonal resolution before the orchestra subsides again. The ending is not a triumphant shout but a slow fade to black, with instruments gradually dropping out and leaving only a handful of players to sing the last few notes, stopping silent without any final resolution.

The Ninth has a curious, proprietary place in the hearts of New York music lovers. It was written in the summers of those hectic final years of Mahler's life. Exiled from the Vienna State Opera and having just faced the death of his daughter, Mahler came to Gotham in 1909. He served admirably, first as music director of the Metropolitan Opera and later the New York Philharmonic. Standing on the very stage where Mahler led the latter orchestra to forgotten glories of a century ago, Mr. Thomas led a performance that served this music and its creator with the utmost respect.

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