If you choose to let it, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 can scare you to death. Or you can let its vast scope and its ethereal beginning and ending that sandwiches raucous and even sarcastic episodes in the middle suggest a hundred other philosophical musings.
Either way, the National Symphony Orchestra’s long-limbed reading this week of the landmark work provides a setting for multiple, personal interpretations by listeners. NSO Music Director Christoph Eschenbach may be one of the world’s current Mahler specialists, but he is also known as a spontaneous conductor who can surprise even his own musicians in the moment.
On Thursday evening in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Mr. Eschenbach took the full hour and a half that Mahler’s Ninth can possibly go, largely as a result of an enormous, 32-minute rollout of the first movement. Was that a troublesome approach? Hold onto that thought, because there could be little debate about the NSO’s performance of the rest of the symphony – an expert second- to fourth-movement progression by Mr. Eschenbach ending with the biggest, longest fade-to-black in the classical repertoire.
The second movement of Mahler’s Ninth is a “Ländler”, a type of Austrian and south German country waltz that changed into minuets, scherzos and other types of triple-meter structures but which Mahler continued to champion and survives to this day. In fact, when Maria and Captain von Trapp first dance in his mansion in The Sound of Music, they’re doing a Ländler. But in Mahler’s Ninth, the dance eventually becomes distorted, and warping sounds out of unusual combinations of instruments seem to herald a farewell to tranquil country life on Mahler’s part. This interplay was nicely done by the orchestra.
The third movement is marked “Rondo-Burleske” and was a special highlight of the NSO’s Thursday evening performance. It likewise has an identifiable theme and is concurrently considered Mahler’s first celebration of, then thumbing of his nose at, city life. Or, in other interpretations, it’s Mahler’s mocking of his contemporary critics from the period immediately preceding World War I when this symphony was written.
The large woodwind and brass section required for Mahler’s Ninth – you can practically name any wind instrument that is typically paired in a classical symphony and find that it requires four of them in this symphony – was ready for action. Mr. Eschenbach left plenty of room in the tempo for a massive, driving speed-up at the end of the movement. The ending was a perfectly unified statement by the orchestra that seemed to leave the audience momentarily stunned after Mr. Eschenbach punched out the final three notes. It was one heck of an effect.
In the fourth and final movement, the string instruments played their guts out as the symphony settled into its final, evocative key of D-flat major for a theme that periodically rises up but, over a very long arc, eventually dissolves away into nothing. Many people hear death – some a peaceful death, some not so much – in the ending of the symphony. There were some particularly expert touches here, notably periodic gentle intrusions by an “English horn” (a type of oboe) on a hanging note that eventually resolves into the main chord. Mr. Eschenbach’s long experience with Mahler’s work informed a very judicious sense of how the strings and other instruments fit together to create this wondrous, and to many ears unsettling, effect.
A piece of stagecraft here that always involves audience choice went one way on Thursday night but may go differently as the NSO repeats Mahler’s Ninth tonight and Saturday evening. Audiences have been known to wait for what at least seems like multiple minutes after the music finally, finally fades out to applaud. I’ve seen them take their cue from when the conductor at last not only drops his arms completely to his side but finally tucks his baton in his right hand into the palm of his left hand.
A man in the audience near me on Thursday evening jumped the gun by starting the applause even before Mr. Eschenbach had completely lowered his arms – and then, incredibly, this same audience member was one of the first to bolt out of the Concert Hall in the middle of the ovation! I’m going to blame Washington’s weeknight workaholism for that, and hope that if you attend the symphony tonight or Saturday nobody will do that. The dead silence at the end of Mahler’s Ninth – awkward as it can be for some people – is a nearly unique phenomenon in all of performing arts and ideally should be treasured as a singular experience.
Back to the first movement. The symphony opens with a repeated single note in a jagged rhythm in which Leonard Bernstein, another Mahler specialist, thought he heard the irregular heartbeat that Mahler had been diagnosed with. That leads to a partial, incomplete melody that – to cite The Sound of Music again – is a reversal of do-re-mi to mi-re-do but without the do and which some musicologists analogize to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26, the “Farewell” sonata. (Many inexactitudes in these metaphors intrude – Beethoven wasn’t referring to his own “farewell” but that of Viennese elites in 1809-1810 under a Napoleanic assault, only to happily return after Napoleon’s defeat in the third movement of the same piano sonata.)
What did Mr. Eschenbach do with these or other ideas about the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth? The most with them, and that may be part of the issue. Rather than pulling them together into forward motion, he lingered on each effect, isolating them to occasionally (and perhaps intentionally) irritating effect. When violins and flutes or a piccolo joined together on a note, or when the brass entered to override softer tones established in the rest of the orchestra, it often sounded “buzzy” in the Concert Hall, whereas by the third movement the brass-and-strings combination sounded broad and full.
There were, however, some wonderful epiphanies in the first movement, such as a gigantic crescendo fairly early on that, instead of carrying over to the first beat of the next bar, is released by Mahler to leave about half the orchestra playing a pleasing “major ninth” chord, one that still has the suspended “re” of do-re-mi at the top but sounds momentarily relaxed. Echoes of this same effect appeared later in the movement, and Mr. Eschenbach’s typical way of conducting this, by raising both his arms on the last loud beat and then dropping both of them as if to say voilá on the revealed chord, is also a nice piece of stagecraft that helped compensate for the movement’s somewhat excessive additional length in his hands.
Mahler’s Ninth is not the easiest introduction to symphonic music by any means, and reactions are notably individualistic. An essayist named Lewis Thomas, in his 1983 book Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, believed he heard – I kid you not – nuclear war in the final movement, although readers who remember that era will recognize the timing of that book as relating to live political issues about foreign policy at that time in the United States. For your own reaction, set against one leading conductor’s clearly idiosyncratic approach at least this week in Washington, the National Symphony Orchestra presents a notable addition to the unique experience of Mahler’s Ninth in our culture.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Mahler’s Ninth with the National Symphony Orchestra continues tonight, Friday, March 20, 2015 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 21, 2015 at 8 p.m. in The Kennedy Center Concert Hall – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 444-1324, or (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.