The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra under Music Director Benjamin Zander wrapped up its 2013-2014 season with a performance at Symphony Hall of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 on Friday night a week ago. The Ninth is a Zander touchstone, which he has presented in Boston four times since 1978 (BMInt review of their last performance from March 2010 is here). The Philharmonic gave the capacity crowd at Symphony Hall something momentous.
Mahler created his Ninth Symphony after being diagnosed with a damaged heart valve, the consequence of multiple childhood illnesses. At the time, he may have experienced the first symptoms of the subacute bacterial endocarditis that ultimately claimed his life at age 51. He also knew many of the master composers before him had died after writing a ninth symphony, so it comes as small surprise that many read a preoccupation with death and dying in this symphony; Leonard Bernstein’s video introduction (for the moment here) describes the symphony as “Four Ways to Say Farewell.” In his notes for the concert (you can read them here and listen to an interview with audio examples here), Zander also makes the case for experiencing the symphony in emotional terms.
Zander describes the colossal opening movement as a study in developing contrasts between “music that is gentle, harmonious, sublimely beautiful, and resolved; and music that is complex, dissonant, full of tension, and unresolved.” The gentle segment is characterized by a motif first articulated by the second violins with the repeated falling seconds, and the tense segment is announced by a syncopated, dotted-note, trumpet-like figure. The BPO’s strings, with violins divided to either side, opened with a gorgeously blended sound. In this gentle segment, the horns intruded in wonderfully jarring fashion with the agitated second theme. The first movement proceeded with carefully thought out, skillfully executed playing, with some transitions played for shocking starkness, others taking the breath away with sudden vanishing to hushed, beautifully balanced pianissimos, and still others showing a carefully controlled, slow-burn escalation. The brass section produced especially memorable sounds, including some keenly balanced, hushed chords and gaudily grotesque snarls and honks. In the final coda, the dotted-note figure transformed into a ravishingly beautiful horn duet, played with stunning restraint by Kevin Owen and Whitacre Hill, and the Philharmonic faded out with a poignant, naked vulnerability.
The second movement extends this music of duality, as it alternates between two characteristic Austrian triple-time dances, a droll, clod-footed Ländler and a grimly demonic waltz. The Boston Philharmonic gloried in the stark contrasts of style and dynamic, with different sections playing different themes at different volumes, independent and yet interlocked. They also showed off Mahler’s kaleidoscopic array of color choices, ending with a beautifully balanced final statement of the Ländler theme by double bassoon and piccolo, playing at the extreme low and high in perfect octaves.
The third movement Rondo-Burleske reverses the order of harmonious and dissonant, opening with an angular, anguished fughetta which alternates with placid, homophonic interludes. The Boston Philharmonic gloried in Mahler’s brutal contrapuntal savagery, and made judicious transitions to the placid moments, with the final one anticipating one of the great melodies in the finale. The movement ends with one final, bone-jarring statement of the Burleske segment.
Each section gets a moment to shine in this symphony, but the final Adagio put the Boston Philharmonic’s magnificent string section on display, and they responded with a ravishing, arresting sound, opulent and full, and equally moving at full-blooded fortissimo or hushed pianissimos. Principal violist Lisa Suslowicz and Concertmaster Jae Lee traded off moving solo moments, and near the end, a trio of cellists Rafael Popper-Keizer, Velleda Miragias, and Aristides Rivas played with noble openness. The wind principals (flute Kathleen Boyd, oboe Peggy Pearson, clarinet Thomas Hill, bassoon Adrian Morejon) did some stunning quartet work as well, but it was the hushed, balanced string section that brought the finale to an ecstatic conclusion.
Mahler’s final artistic testament certainly can accommodate more than one interpretation, but Zander and the Philharmonic made a strong case for this momentous, duality-driven approach. The Philharmonic season has drawn to a close, though Zander will be back with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in a program of Ravel, Ginastera, and Richard Strauss on Sunday, May 18 at Sanders Theatre.