Dallas — For the first symphonic concert of the new season, Music Director Jaap van Zweden made the odd, and a little disquieting, choice of a symphony that is all about saying goodbye. Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is a huge and complicated work. It clocks in at 80-plus minutes and is one of the most profound works in the repertoire. It is rarely performed, mostly because of the massive orchestra of superb players that is required, but also because the realities of today’s budgets do not allow for the proper amount of rehearsal time required putting it together.
As the capacity audience settled down on Friday evening, expectations were high in the Meyerson Symphony Center. The Dallas Symphony is a magnificent orchestra, perfectly capable of playing this difficult work, and van Zweden is a fine conductor out of Mahler’s same European traditions. In his concertmaster days, he surely played the symphony under some of the greatest conductors of our time and his own unique musical instincts are well suited to these profound compositions.
Mahler also requires preparation on the part of the audience. For one thing, you have to be ready for a long period of concentration. Further, you have to put yourself in Mahler’s mindset at the time of its composition: an artist who was surrounded by personal tragedy. Before he started it the Vienna Opera asked for his resignation; Maria, his three-year-old daughter died; and he was diagnosed with fatal heart disease.
The performance of our national anthem was a fitting start for the season, but afterwards, it was ill conceived to start out with Leopold Stokowski’s overblown orchestration of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue, BWV 582. Suddenly, barely 20 minutes after we were seated, we were back in the lobby for an intermission.
Once again, we had to settle down and prepare for the Mahler. No easy task. Perhaps a concert of only the Mahler might have been considered too short, but it would have been a much better experience. The mighty Ninth symphony can stand-alone.
On Friday, the symphony was played with amazing virtuosity by the orchestra and equally well paced by van Zweden. There are as many opinions about tempi in this symphony as there are listeners, but van Zweden found a middle ground between too fast and too slow that should have pleased everyone. It never dragged and never felt rushed, although the last movement could have used a little more solemnity.
The problem was one of dynamics. Mahler fills his scores with markings, almost on every note. In this symphony, more than others, he was very specific. This is because he realized that he probably wouldn’t live to hear it—much less conduct it himself and do his usual refinements in the process.
It may not be possible to observe all of his markings. He frequently has one instrument marked pianissimo (very soft) while others are marked fortissimo (very loud). He had a concept of sound in mind. For example, there is a passage where the strings are marked soft with the horns blazing out over them. Other places, the entire orchestra is loud but the brasses are asked to play softly, adding substance rather than volume.
You would have to rehearse this symphony measure by measure to achieve the balance Mahler conceived. It is possible that, had he lived to conduct it, he would have made many changes as he confronted the reality of what he wrote.
But that is not the case and modern day conductors have to try to match the score.
Weather it was a matter of inadequate rehearsal time or simple physics, this performance failed in realizing Mahler’s dynamic plan. Mostly we had very loud or very soft. The loud parts were a wall of orchestral sound. Mahler rarely marks triple forte, but the difference between that marking and double forte was indistinguishable on Friday evening. Places where the horns were marked to be louder than the orchestra sounded like they were overplaying when they were not.
The markings in the soft parts also range from piano to triple piano, but it is difficult to create this range. On Friday, many of the soft passages lacked the specularity of instrumental lines rising and falling out of the texture. However, the end of the last movement was as hushed as possible.
All this is beside the point when it comes to the Mahler 9. A performance that matches Mahler’s compulsive markings may well be impossible. A performance such as van Zweden and the DSO delivered on Friday night was a wonderful experience. We heard a virtuosic reading of a rarely heard symphony that has much to say to all of us trapped in the human experience.
We should all say such an elegant goodbye.