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Gustav Packs a Punch and a House

New World Center
05/05/2012 -  & May 6*, 2012
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D
New World Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)

M. Tilson Thomas (Courtesy of NWS)

It no longer comes as a surprise when many willingly admit that it was not easy for them to appreciate Mahler. Many never get there and eventually stop trying. But for those of us who have uncovered the treasure, to experience the Ninth at the New World Center must be a particularly high moment in one’s concert going life. For some music lovers, attending all the Mahler symphonies might not be unlike seeing Wagner’s Ring in Bayreuth; it isn’t really honest to underestimate this event’s significance.

This was also the season’s last program. The last movement of Mahler’s Ninth is about the ultimate farewell; what an appropriate finale as many of the musicians leave the company to begin careers with major orchestras throughout the world.

The first movement begins with Mahler at his most peaceful, but this does not last long when intense fear, perhaps even regret, is explored. But this consistently fades as we return to the calm opening theme in continually more profound variations. The beautiful playing of the strings does not make them the star here but becomes the foundation for showcasing the other sections. This one movement offers more intensity than the entire symphonies of most composers.

Next comes a much welcomed lightheartedness. Again, the strong playing of the strings provides stability along with the horns which seem to keep the tempo. It is inevitable that one might feel he or she has entered into Richard Strauss’s second act of Der Rosenkavalier with the ever pervasive waltz tunes. The sense of playful menace throughout builds to a hysteria that makes one feel like a guest at Baron Ochs’s bachelor party; and face it, that is an event about which most of us would rather hear than be a participant.

“Rondo-Burleske” is the description of the third movement. Though this might imply humor, the sound that is created is predominately harsh, perhaps even brutal. Again the strings take a backseat to the other orchestra members. And when one watches the tremendous number of accessories used on the brass and winds, it is clear that Mahler, maybe more than any other composer of his time, was never satisfied with the limited sounds created by an orchestra. The contrast to the extravagant silliness that has preceded it offers an explanation of this symphony and Mahler’s work in general being regarded an acquired taste. Mahler had no intention of making things comfortable. This is music for thinkers. I have had the “oh no, not tonight!” feeling when Mahler is on the program simply because complete attention is essential. For many, nothing can be more satisfying than an evening of his work but rarely will one leave without a sense of exhaustion.

Finally during the fourth movement’s farewell, the glorious strings take over. People usually debate death themes when discussing this movement; if this is one’s interpretation, it is a most peaceful exit. Sadness, of course, is evident as we sense the fading of intense love of life.

The New World Symphony approached this massive piece with uncommon ease. Mr. Tilson Thomas never calls attention to himself with flashy histrionics. There was a sense of honor at the New World Center though not carried to reverential extremes; the playing was strongly emotional yet, at the same time, subtle. And though the orchestra felt all of one piece, it is unfair not to give high praise to the especially powerful bassoons which seldom have such exposure, the always reliable horn section which was particularly strong, and it would be remiss not to mention the giant contributions of clarinetist Jason Shafer, oboist Jennifer Christen, and flutist Seth Morris.

At the Saturday night outdoor Wallcast there was an audience of nearly two thousand. This was unimaginable when the New World Symphony was located just a short walk away at the Lincoln Theatre. Mr. Tilson Thomas didn’t just bring a great organization to Miami Beach; he brought a brand new mind-set.

Jeff Haller



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