January 26, 2019
The most important questions are the unanswerable ones. In his Ninth Symphony, as in so much of his music, Gustav Mahler asked (and invited listeners to ask) what it means to be human, and alive, and mortal. He showed us life in all its layered contradictions: We dance, we fight, we laugh, we fear, we create, we destroy. We love. We grieve.
Mortality is a fact of life, but I don’t hear in the Ninth Symphony a preoccupation with death. Mahler doesn’t rage against the dying of the light but sees in the last faint glow of dusk an ineffable beauty.
Under music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing’s leadership, Friday in the Tobin Center, the San Antonio Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s Ninth impressed as expected with the seamless sense of line and direction, the telling and fearlessly rendered details, the intense chiaroscuro of the conductor’s shaping of dynamics, the cut-to-the-quick effectiveness of his tempo choices. In essence, Mr. Lang-Lessing made his points simply by being faithful to Mahler’s score, but some aspects of fidelity were distinctive to this conductor – the stomping rusticity of the Ländler folk-dance rhythms in the second movement, the frenetic, giddy tempo of the third, the diaphanous radiance of the finale and the slight sense of resistance the conductor brought to its forward motion.
But above all, it was the hedonic opulence, the almost unbearable immersion in beauty – especially in the celestial final movement – that made the strongest claim on memory. This orchestra’s violins have never before sounded so luminous, so silken, so relaxed. All of the principals produced solos worthy of the world’s great orchestras. Special notice goes to Mark Teplitsky (flute), Jeff Garza (horn), and concertmaster Eric Gratz, but that selection is almost arbitrary. By my (possibly faulty) count, 16 non-roster players had to be brought in to satisfy Mahler’s outsized orchestration, but no lapses in ensemble or sonic polish could be detected: Our region provides a deep bench.
Mahler never presumed to answer the question he asked about the meaning of mortal human life. And yet he did answer it. The medium is the message. The heart-tugging beauty of that fading glow in the Ninth’s final movement – that beauty is the point. We are not made uniquely human by our reason, or our tools, or our knowledge, or our mastery of nature, or our proclivity for killing. We are made human by the beauty we create in love, and the beauty we receive with gratitude.
Coda: It is worth remembering this orchestra’s most recent previous performance of the Mahler Ninth, in May of 2001. It was the second of a remarkable trinity of monumental full-evening works conducted by Christopher Wilkins as his valedictory, closing his decade-long tenure as music director. (The others were Bach’s Johannespassion and the Verdi Requiem). That account did not equal this latest one in ensemble precision or sonic polish, but no one present could have been left unchanged by the humanity and intuition and love that Mr.Wilkins brought to the music.
Another coda: Although the San Antonio Symphony titled this concert “Journey’s End,” the Ninth was not quite the end of Mahler’s journey. It was the last symphony he would complete, in 1910, but by the time he died 13 months later he had made considerable progress on a Tenth Symphony.
The first of its five movements, an Adagio, was essentially complete and often is played as a standalone work. The second, a scherzo, also was essentially complete. Moat of the remaining movements existed only in short score – two piano staves – with some notations indicating Mahler’s instrumentation intentions. Only a fairly short section was entirely missing. But several composers have created usable performing versions by completing orchestrations according to their various understandings of Mahler’s style. Some important conductors have championed and recorded one or another of those versions, or mixed and matched them. The most convincing recording I have heard is Simon Rattle’s with the Berlin Philharmonic (a composite based on Deryck Cooke’s final version). Most conductors who have considered the matter – including Sebastian Lang-Lessing – reject all such efforts and countenance performing only the Adagio.
My view is that, despite the conjectural nature of all the performing versions, the Tenth is a necessary part of the Mahler picture. In its bones, as it was left by Mahler himself, it is more of a summation than the Ninth, and more “Mahlerian” in its symmetrical five-moment structure and its emotional breadth. And there are moments in the finale that will rip your heart out. Mike Greenberg