How popular is Mahler’s Ninth Symphony? Consider that Sunday afternoon’s performance by Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra at Symphony Hall was the second by a youth orchestra in Boston this season, Hugh Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia having done it at Jordan Hall back in November. It seems to be Zander’s favorite Mahler symphony, or at least the one he’s performed most often, both with NEC orchestras (when he was conducting there) and with his own Boston Philharmonic. At any rate, the only other Boston ensemble you might hear doing the Ninth is the BSO, and though it’s the symphony Andris Nelsons made his BSO debut with back in 2011, you can’t expect it to turn up there more than once every 10 years or so. So any live performance is welcome, and this one has not often been bettered in Symphony Hall.
One perhaps paradoxical reason Mahler’s Ninth is so popular is our sense of it as the Symphony of Death. There’s death in it, of course. But responses like Leonard Bernstein’s (“ours is the century of death, and Mahler is its musical prophet”), Lewis Thomas’s (“death everywhere, the dying of everything, the death of humanity”), and Paul Bekker’s (“What Death tells me”) seem excessive. Yes, Mahler had been diagnosed with a heart-valve problem in 1907, but he was hardly doomed to die (as he did, of bacterial endocarditis) just four years later. Having finished work on the Ninth in the summer of 1909, he would go on to conduct a season and a half at the New York Philharmonic and complete a draft of his Tenth Symphony.
What we have in his Ninth is four essays on life in four different keys: D major, C major, A minor, and D-flat major. The slow-fast-fast-slow layout is reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique: a big, agonized opening movement, a dance movement, a scherzo, and a grave, stoic finale. And Mahler stuffs the symphony with references. At the outset of the Andante comodo first movement, the second violins’ falling major second might recall the beginning of Beethoven’s Les adieux (“Farewell”) piano sonata, or the “Ewig” final notes of Mahler’s previous symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, or even the section of the Johann Strauss waltz, Freut euch des Lebens (“Enjoy Life”), that he quotes in full at bar 147 in the movement’s development. The Rondo-Burleske third movement includes a humorous reference to the “Weiber” chorus from Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe (“The Merry Widow”) and a poignant one from that operetta’s “O kommet doch, o kommt, ihr Ballsirenen” (“Oh come you now, oh come, you dancing sirens”).
The Adagio finale begins by reprising the “Ballsirenen” quotation; the primary theme has been thought to draw from the hymn tune Eventide (“Abide with Me”). At bar 8 Mahler quotes the phrase from his song Urlicht (“Primal Light”) that accompanies the words “Je lieber mocht’ ich im Himmel sein” (“I would rather be in Heaven”), and in the Adagissimo coda he alludes to the fourth of his Kindertotenlieder, “Oft’ denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen” (“Often I Think They’ve Only Gone Out”), in which the singer imagines that his dead children have only gone out for a walk and that he “will go to meet them, on yonder heights, in the sunshine.” There are internal references as well: the rising five-note major scale that starts off the “In tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers” second movement reappears, in the minor, as the bassoon’s ghostly theme in the finale.
Apart from the many live performances of the Ninth he’s given in Boston, Zander has recorded the symphony twice, with the Boston Philharmonic in 1985 (cassette tape, no longer commercially available), and with the Philharmonia of London, from a live performance at the Barbican in January 1996 (Telarc). That latter release is careful in approach — what tends to happen when you have limited rehearsal time with an unfamiliar orchestra — and not ideally balanced, a problem that may stem from the venue and the recording process rather than the conductor.
There’s certainly nothing like a performance in Symphony Hall with your own orchestra — which in this case numbered 126 musicians, ages 12 to 21. The concert was scheduled to start at 3 p.m., but Zander preceded it with a 25-minute talk, so the music didn’t actually begin till 3:35. The love-vs.-hate view of the Andante comodo that he expounded seems to me reductive, and the idea, perhaps first suggested by Leonard Bernstein, that the opening bars represent Mahler’s irregular heartbeat is not supported by Mahler’s doctors, who did not detect arrhythmia. Content aside (and much of the talk was instructive), if the concert’s not going to start till 3:30, it would be appropriate to say so and let audience members choose when to arrive.
On a more positive note, ticket prices were modest, ranging from $15 to $50. And Zander deployed the first and second violins antiphonally, as Wolff did with the NEC Philharmonia in November: firsts on his left, seconds on his right. This seating was standard in Mahler’s day, and you can hear why it matters when the firsts and seconds converse with each other at the beginning of the Andante comodo, and later when the seconds begin each phrase of the Freut euch des Lebens quotation and the firsts finish it.
Zander’s interpretation was stellar if not transcendent. I thought it a shade literal, a shade locked into the score, a shade conservative in tempo contrasts and paragraphing in a symphony that, for me, warrants the over-the-top approach of a Jascha Horenstein or a Klaus Tennstedt. Timings overall were pretty close to those of Zander’s 1996 recording: 28:00, 16:00, 14:00, 25:30. The Rondo-Burleske has been done faster, and with greater excitement, but Zander’s decision to underline the architecture and the counterpoint is a perfectly reasonable one. And though the Adagio finale has gone slower to good effect, 25:30 is hardly fast. Bruno Walter, who conducted the premiere of the Ninth in 1912, took 18:16 in the work’s premiere recording, in 1938, and 21:00 in his 1961 Columbia Symphony release. Otto Klemperer, the other Mahler disciple who made recordings of the symphonies, averaged around 25:30 in this movement.
One could hardly fault the playing. The Ninth is a demanding work: Mahler treats the huge orchestra like a chamber ensemble, with sections exposed and solos popping up everywhere and innumerable independent lines going at once. The French horns got off to a worrying start in bar 4: marked “stopped” and ff, they sounded weak and tentative. But they covered themselves with glory thereafter. The soloists with the most to do were Elmer Churampi (trumpet) and Joseph Cradler (French horn), and they were outstanding.
The Andante comodo is a battle between two thematic groups, a resigned one in D major represented by that falling major second, and a turbulent one in D minor that climaxes with quotations from the discarded Blumine movement of Mahler’s First Symphony. Mahler wrote on his draft of the Andante “O Jugendzeit! Entschwundene! O Liebe! Verwehte!” (“O Youth! Vanished! O Love! Blown away!”), and the Blumine quotations keep causing the movement to crash, so it’s not hard to guess that the lost love here is Johanna Richter, the Cassel Opera soprano of whom Mahler was briefly enamored and for whom he wrote Blumine.
At 28 minutes, the movement was expansive. (The 1996 Philharmonia recording, which ran 30 minutes, was perhaps too expansive.) It began very gently, but when the first D-minor climax erupted, the battle lines were drawn. Zander did a good job of distinguishing the two thematic groups, and at the conclusion of the exposition, he observed Mahler’s Allegro marking without breaking into a sprint, as so many conductors do. The Freut euch des Lebens quotation flowered, and toward the end of the development the trombones and the tuba were stentorian (as they were all afternoon). Zander preceded the funeral march (Mahler marked it “Wie ein schwerer Kondukt”) with a delicate luftpause; Carlos Aguilar’s flute expressed the release of the soul, first solo and then in conjunction with Cradler’s solo French horn. Rounding it off was Ryoei Kawai’s oboe, dropping agonizingly from F-sharp to E (the falling major second) but not to D, the home key still paradise lost.
The second movement comprises an opening Ländler, marked by Mahler “Etwas täppisch und sehr derb” (“Somewhat clumsy and very rough”), a group of neurotic waltzes, and a second ländler, shy and wallflowerish, almost a minuet. It’s a dance dust-up: at one point the first ländler tries to retake the floor but is shunted aside by the waltzes. Zander could have been rougher in this movement and created a greater contrast between the first ländler and the waltzes. He did ease gracefully into the second Ländler and gave it a different feel without slowing to a crawl.
Dedicated to his “brothers in Apollo,” those critics who had accused Mahler of not being able to write counterpoint, the Rondo-Burleske serves up a dozen minutes of snarling, vertiginous polyphony. Here the trombones and tuba were positively black, making the “Weiber” section seem that much sweeter. Churampi’s solo trumpet in the “Ballsirenen” section offered a glimpse of bliss that was offset by Diego Bacigalupe’s parodying E-flat clarinet. The movement, getting faster and faster, builds to a cacophonous finish, but Zander had the measure of it.
The Adagio finale brought one solo highlight after another, beginning with the second theme, stripped of all flesh and intoned first by the bassoon (Eli Holmes) and then by the contrabassoon (Ryan Turano). Viola (Dominick Douglas), flute, and bassoon had a spooky trio before the concertmistress (Mitsuru Yonezaki) weighed in. There was subsequent fine work from Cheyanna Duran (English horn), Matthew Geller (bass clarinet), Olivia Iverson (piccolo), and Annette Jakovcic (cello). Trumpets, French horns, and trombones roared the last resistance at bar 118; Zander spun out the five-minute coda with solemn reverence.
In June, Zander and the BPYO will take this Ninth on a European tour that will include stops in Berlin, Prague, Salzburg, Vienna (where they’ll perform in the fabled Musikverein), and Amsterdam (in the equally fabled Concertgebouw). The European Union has its own teenage orchestra, but the youthful energy of this ensemble, and its conductor, should attract an audience wherever they go.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.