NSO and BSO deliver a weekend of masterful Mahler


It’s my job to bring at least a few expectations with me to concerts, but when it comes to Gustav Mahler, I really make an effort to leave them at home.

For one thing, they don’t do you much good. In the same way you can return to a familiar strip of coastline and have no idea how the waves will be, you can know a long stretch of Mahler by heart and never fall into its push and pull the same way twice. Best just to go and sit, see what the day does with it and let it wash over you.

Still, setting up a weekend double-header of big Mahler symphonies — the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra reunited with music director laureate Marin Alsop to take on his first (a.k.a. “Titan”), and the National Symphony Orchestra welcoming Sir Mark Elder to lead the composer’s far more titanic ninth — it’s hard to resist the temptation to listen to them as opposite ends of a 20-year narrative, or position them as bookends.

But beyond any historical reconsideration of Mahler, the weekend’s performances — at Strathmore and the Kennedy Center, respectively — offered a chance to hear our local orchestras anew. And maybe it’s just the Mahler, but the BSO and NSO have never sounded better.

Alsop smartly paired Mahler’s First (composed between 1887 and 1888) with a world premiere BSO co-commission from composer Huang Ruo. “Tipping Point” is a piece explicitly concerned with the climate — a metronomic wood block taps out the moments as the earth approaches the titular point of no return. (The piece opens with a recording of Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who in 2015 brought a snowball to the Senate floor as indisputable evidence that climate change was no biggie.)

In sound and vision, “Tipping Point” felt like an environmentally concerned cousin of Tania Leon’s Pulitzer-winning composition “Stride” — both are drawn forward in a mechanistic plod and ornately decorated with overlapping fanfares. Alsop elevated its vaporous beds of arpeggiating strings and coolly undulating woodwinds into a beguiling texture, soon intruded upon by alarming outbursts from the horns. Huang has a storyteller’s keen timing, and despite its modest 15-minute length, “Tipping Point” was a gratifyingly complete capture of this talented young composer’s range.

For this performance of the First, Alsop selected one of its lesser-known iterations. Mahler tweaked and revised and re-premiered this symphony several times between 1888 and 1906; but Alsop selected the only version that officially bears the title “Titan” — or, more completely, “Titan: A Tone Poem in Symphony Form, in Two Parts and Five Movements,” an edition of which was published in 2019.

This five-movement version was only performed twice — in October 1893 in Hamburg, and in June 1894 in Weimar — and was received, according to Mahler, “with furious opposition by some and with wholehearted approval by others.” Perhaps it was the perceived interference of Mahler’s many programmatic specifications — evocations of youth, spring, a wedding, a funeral, etc. — that gave his critics enough footing to push back with such force. By 1906, Mahler had pared down the symphony (removing the andante “Blumine” movement) and topped the score with a simple directive: “Wie en Naturlaut” (or “Like the Sound of Nature”).

As such, Alsop’s interpretation flowed with a naturalistic ease — an effect intensified all night by gorgeous, engaged playing by concertmaster Jonathan Carney. (And occasionally derailed during quiet parts, when a strange grounding buzz leaked from the hall’s speaker array.) The first movement dawned beautifully, the offstage horns supplying an implied grandeur to the landscape that Alsop maintained from movement to movement. Alsop took a painterly approach to Mahler’s many details — birdsong and bells, dewdrop harps, the lowing moo of a tuba.

The restored movement — the “Blumine” or “Flowerine” passage, marked andante con moto — offered an unexpected respite on the familiar journey of the First. I can see why it hasn’t lasted the test of time, it doesn’t do much to preserve the glow of the opening movement. But it was a wonderful showcase of trumpeter Andrew Balio, flutist Christine Murphy and oboist Katherine Needleman — just a few of the BSO’s ranks who delivered real thrills.

The third movement was brusque and brisk, with wonderfully articulated dialogue between the strings and brass (how I’d love to hear the NSO perform in this hall once in a while …). The funeral march may here and there have been in slight violation of Mahler’s instruction not to drag, but was brightened by darting oboes and mournful bassoons. And the final movement — where things get truly Titanic — was as Stürmisch bewegt (stormy, agitated) as one could ask for: Alsop let the strings and horns rear up before taming them into the movement’s luminous home stretch, which welcomes back themes and reassembles them into triumphant climax.

I’ve always found the BSO to be the local orchestra with slightly sharper teeth and more of a propensity to pounce, so it was deeply satisfying watch Alsop pull such nuance from so many individual players. (For another serving of Mahler, the BSO will perform Symphony No. 5 under conductor Fabien Gabel on March 9 and 12.)

I wasn’t sure whether I was being fair to the NSO, waiting for Sunday’s matinee performance of the Ninth — it seems rather like asking a marathon runner to pose for a portrait at the finish line, especially with this gentle giant of a piece. With added syrup, the Ninth can extend its four movements to a full 90 minutes.

But Sunday afternoon’s performance found an inspired NSO in fighting form — tight, tenacious, together. Mahler seems to have an effect on this orchestra — an affinity made clear when I heard them perform the “Resurrection” last April under Michael Tilson Thomas. Guest conductor Sir Mark Elder cast his own unique spell over the musicians, crafting a meticulously detailed and attentively balanced performance that, at 87 minutes, maximized the symphony’s sprawl without any overindulgence or brake-pumping.

Elder, the longtime music director of the Halle Orchestra and newly appointed principal guest conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic, showcased his masterful technical control from start to finish — his guidance of motives and themes blooming from the winds and circulating around the orchestra, his temperance of tempi in service of sublime cohesion, and (especially apparent in this third and final performance) his intimacy with the terrain.

But what made Elder shine for me was the fidelity he brought to this symphony’s emotional complexities. The Ninth is a tangle of turmoils, and he pulled each thread: The subtle arrhythmia of the first movement, its foundation of frailty and foreboding; the molten irony at the core of the second movement’s deconstructed landler; the vengeful sarcasm of the third movement “Rondo-Burleske”; and the devastatingly beautiful final movement, which bid the celestially slow farewell of a dying star. As an interpreter, Elder’s a sculptor.

The orchestra sounded bright, vivacious and confident. At times in the first movement, the hall grew too quiet to write notes — Elder’s gentle overlay of flute, oboe, clarinet as breathtakingly light as grief is heavy. And its finish: that long drawn-out sigh of clarinet, the delayed relief of its puff of piccolo — just perfect.

Urgent strings girded the second movement, fortified by the best-balanced brass I’ve heard in the hall since landing here — the two sections thrillingly swinging each other through the dance’s motions. The dark and stormy third movement (often interpreted as an expression of Mahler’s own bitterness following his forced resignation from the Vienna Opera) continued this whirl, edging it further and further into the grotesque. The brass section in particular was phenomenal — terrifying columns of sound that felt like a threatening architecture.

But my goodness, what a finale. I loved the expression of the winds (in the passage marked “Stets Sehr Gehalten”), the anguished climb of brass and catastrophic climaxes. This finale truly arrives in the form of its own disappearance, as the score’s final pages (“Adagissimo”) taper into a diaphanous scrim of strings that seem to reach into the eternal.

Marked ersterbend in the score — or “dying away” — these long final notes of the Ninth hung like last words, or the closing colors of a long sunset. I’ve never been so moved by something so still, nor clobbered so hard by something so soft.

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