San Diego Symphony maestro Jahja Ling last performed Mahler’s Symphony no. 6 in A minor during the 2008-2009 season. This past weekend he and the orchestra gave a luminous performance of the work, clearly showing his deep love for Mahler: one that made the listener feel as if Ling had been conducting the piece during every subsequent season.

When it was announced, to appreciative murmurs from the audience, that the orchestra was playing in honor of Ling’s mentor Kurt Masur, the atmosphere immediately became heightened. From the first notes of the initial marching motif, Ling drove the piece forward with unrelenting momentum.

If Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is considered (though not named by the composer) his “Symphony of a Thousand”, then his Sixth Symphony, in this interpretation, could be called “Symphony of One Hundred-Eleven Superb Musicians”. Ling, at the helm of this exceptional ensemble, led them on an extraordinary voyage, and brought a willing and approving audience along for the ride.

Completed only a few years before his death, Mahler’s Sixth poignantly expresses the tragic details of his later life. Within the time frame of almost 90 minutes, the work depicts the composer’s darkest thoughts and emotions. Through its pervasive march rhythms, Mahler seems to be trouping inexorably toward an eventual surrender to the inevitable tragedy in his life.

Notwithstanding its defeatist tone, the work shows Mahler’s brilliance in capturing the essence of classical symphonic form, with its arrangement of four movements in traditional sequence. Revelatory moments of lyricism and tranquility are interspersed between the bleak realities of the composer’s psychological and emotional state.

Ling has spoken of his own closeness to the piece, through his deep identification with the work’s tragic elements. That intensity of emotion was very much in evidence at this hearing, as Ling found ways to bring consistency and shape to the often-strident music in ways that were relatable to the audience.

The orchestration is heavy and immense, especially in the woodwinds and brass. The huge assemblage of percussion includes two timpanists and copious numbers of instruments, among them cowbells to represent the eternal hopes contained in human spirituality, and a colossal “Mahler box” to execute the fierce hammer strokes that depict the inevitability of fate. 

Ling handled this sizable ensemble with expert skill and complete control, providing an effective movement-to-movement contrast between the harshness and the wonderment of the composer’s conflicting worldviews.

In the opening Allegro energico, Ling emphasized the repeated juxtaposition of the A major and minor motifs to set the tone for the clash between alternately grim and calm atmospheres. This movement ends in optimistic A major; however, although the shifting rhythmic meters of the following Scherzo movement portray the composer’s discomfort, Ling showed quite the opposite, with no lag in the pacing.

The lyrical Andante, the only movement of the work set in a major key and uncharacteristically tender given the overall atmosphere of gloom, is surely one of the most exquisite Mahler ever wrote and highly reminiscent of the famous Adagietto from his Fifth, as well as moments from his Kindertotenlieder. Ling handled this short-lived gentleness with just the right amount of sensitivity. He drew a velvety sound from the violins, perfectly balanced with the horns, thus weaving a magical spell to pave the way for the final movement with its dark, foreboding Sostenuto introduction, and quirky shift between fierceness and ingenuousness in the brisk Allegro moderato.

The famous hammer strokes have always been controversial, the conundrum being what kind of instrument can produce a sound “like the fall of an axe” that the composer stipulated. Ling and principal percussionist Greg Cohen chose an enormous wooden box the size of a small stage organ, striking with a huge, Hulk-worthy wooden mallet. Though it is considered difficult to accomplish the hammer strokes exactly on cue, Cohen performed with full force and perfect precision, accomplishing an audience “jump-out-of their-seats” effect.

Even more than the other Mahler symphonies, the Sixth requires tremendous effort from the musicians. It is a huge workout for the violins, with non-stop passagework in the highest regions of the range, especially in the final movement; and it requires the full range and potential of a massive brass section, with trombones playing their guts out and trumpet passages worthy of several concertos.

But the clear stars of the evening were the French horn section: eight-plus-one of the most consistent players on the planet. Not once did their sound, whether individually or together, lack in beauty or power. This was what the composer intended, and Ling drew it out magnificently.

This was a resplendent performance: tailor made for devoted Mahlerians and worthy of creating a whole troop of new Mahler fans.