Dallas — After turning in such a glorious performance of Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony only a week ago and multitudinous Soluna Festival appearances in between, one would imagine the Dallas Symphony players would be exhausted. If that were so, it was not apparent in the magnificent performance of Gustav Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 3—all 90 minutes of it.
Musical Director Jaap van Zweden and the DSO shook the rafters of the Meyerson Symphony Center on Thursday evening. In the (very) loud parts, tsunami-sized swells of sound roiled as they swept out over the audience. By way of contrast, the (very) soft passages were no louder than a light summer’s breeze, to stick with Mahler’s nature metaphor.
Describing Mahler drives you to poetic excess.
Poetry (thankfully) aside, Mahler fills his scores with detailed notes and performance advice. As a conductor, he knew only too well the liberties that other conductors take and he wanted to make his own wishes known to future generations. Although I didn’t want the distraction of a score during the performance, it was remarkable how many of the composer’s wishes, at least those remembered, were honored.
There were some odd and surprising deviations, such as not splitting the first and second violins on opposite sides of the stage for full stereo effect. Some were almost compulsively followed. But the cumulative effect resulted in an unparalleled representation of Mahler’s “voice.”
This is little doubt that the big moments, crowned with brass, wowed the audience and gave listeners goose bumps. Part of the effectiveness of these huge moments came from the excellent intonation of the orchestra and their ability to hold the pitch steady while increasing the volume to earsplitting levels.
But Mahler writes in layers, wheels within wheels, and without pristine clarity you can easily fog the subtle treasures buried in the score. Achieving this clarity for most of such passages was impressive. In fact, such attention to detail was the outstanding aspect of van Zweden’s interpretation.
Dynamics didn’t get such careful observation. Tutta forza arrived in the first few minutes (Mahler writes double forte) and that full-out level was revisited frequently. While it is thrilling to hear the first couple of times, it eventually loses its effectiveness. Thus, in those truly climatic moments, when Mahler writes a triple forte, the loudness cupboard is bare. The DSO players managed to scrape up some extra oomph, but it was not what it could have been if van Zweden had kept some gas in reserve for the dénouement at the end.
Tempi were on the fast side of acceptable. Some added Viennese grace would have helped many of the transitions. A short break after the very long first movement, as Mahler requests in the score, would have also helped (especially for older derrieres).
All of the DSO solo players, some of the best in the country, were exceptional. David Cooper and his Horn Armada made the most of his opportunities to sound out. Guest trombonist Joe Alessi, principal in the New York Philharmonic, was amazing in the extensive solo passages.
In the fourth movement, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, a last minute replacement, sang Nietzsche’s encouraging words of promised joy from a place in the middle of the violin section. She has a rich and dark sound that effortlessly soared out over the orchestra.
The Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas, directed by Terrie Preskitt-Brown, and the women of the Dallas Symphony Chorus, directed by Joshua Habermann, added a completely different and treble-filled sonic experience.
An offstage posthorn, a relatively obscure instrument rarely seen in an orchestra, delivered a haunting hunting call (played by Thomas Rolfs).
Maher’s third symphony is a deeply philosophical work that uses the language of music rather than words to convey its points. Mahler’s lexicon requires a huge orchestra to speak, and over 90 minutes to convey. He adds real words at two critical points: some Nietzsche, and a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German folk poetry that Mahler mined later for another large-scale work. He uses this language of words sparingly to enlarge and comment upon his overall musical statement. Both textual sections are brief.
This is a nature-based symphony as you can tell by the names he gave to the movements (and later deleted):
"Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In"
"What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me"
"What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me"
"What Man Tells Me"
"What the Angels Tell Me"
"What Love Tells Me"
Mahler uses a wide variety of musical styles as he presents his own thoughts and invites you to formulate your own, from the hints he gives, as the music progresses. You will find folk melodies in one spot and an inspiring hymn in another.
Everyone has his or her own ideas about what nature whispers to all of us.
This effect is much like novels such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which exists on two levels. His novel presents an involving and exciting story about an adventurer exploring and exploiting Africa. But underneath, it is about an equally perilous journey deep into the self. Another layer speaks to the dangers of imperialism.
The book can be read on any or all level(s).
Another example of a different kind of two-level book is Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. On the one side, it is one of the great love stories while underneath it is a devastating depiction of the South before, during and after the Civil War.
Right form the start, brassy and bold brilliance announces that van Zweden sees this piece as more of an orchestral showpiece, with a vague program underneath, with less attention paid to the philosophical side. His generally quick tempi added to this impression, sometimes even hurrying us along, leaving little time to ponder as we progressed. But this is a perfectly valid interpretation and van Zweden made a good case for his view of the symphony.
It was a superb presentation of a rarely performed masterwork. We can all be grateful that he DSO programmed it and that van Zweden and the DSO gave it such a glowing performance.
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