Five years ago, Andris Nelsons made an unexpected debut with the Boston Symphony when he substituted for James Levine in a Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 9 in D major. Mahler’s complex final symphony is far from ideal “first date” material and this initial conversation between orchestra and conductor was not without its fits and starts. Even so, it was such a promising beginning it led to further engagements and Nelsons’ appointment as Levine’s successor in May 2013. This week's performance is a testament to an ongoing collaboration which has deepened to the point that orchestra and conductor have become one.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

As the earth was created out of the void, so many of Mahler’s symphonies, and the Ninth most of all, are consciously molded out of silence. In a musical equivalent of The Big Bang, sections of the orchestra exchange seemingly random bits of rhythm, harmony or melody until something coalesces creating a new cosmos of sound. A brief and barely audible rhythmic pulse in the cellos, like the heartbeat of a newborn, breaks the silence of the Ninth. Harps and horns join in and the initial pulse quickly becomes the sighing of a halting, wistful waltz. Nothing endures for long in this symphony, however, and least in its opening Andante comodo: waltzes become lamentations, marches morph into dirges, fanfares are truncated or turn sour, surges of sweeping lyricism are mocked by ominous, hectoring brass or monitory woodwinds, and tantalizing melodic feints dead-end. Individual instruments will abruptly interject and then just as abruptly fall silent while keys and moods modulate continually. Under Nelson’s baton, what can easily seem episodic and disjointed became poignant and heartfelt.

Diamond-sharp precision marked the articulation of the dance rhythms which dominate the second movement. Nelsons swooped and swayed, injecting an element of swing into dances Mahler described as “clumsy and coarse”. The following Rondo-Burleske built with a sense of inevitability from its opening snarling dissonances to a volatile, neurotic, frenzy.

Desperation gave way to hymn-like, prayerful lamentation with the expansive, chthonic string tone Nelsons summoned to open the concluding Adagio. The fourth movement is the mirror image of the first as each choir of the orchestra falls silent and the heartbeat rhythm returns, tired but struggling defiantly against the silence as the music stubbornly stops and starts and finally fades into the transcendence of nothingness. Nelsons dramatized the importance of silence by conducting it, freezing himself and the orchestra in place for over a minute. Only when bows dropped and Nelsons relaxed were we delivered back to the quotidian.

Mahler’s Ninth will constitute one of the two programs Nelsons and the orchestra will be taking on a brief May tour to six venues in Germany, plus Vienna and Luxembourg. Anyone within striking distance of a performance should go. You will not only hear one of our finest orchestras and one of the world’s most eloquent and searching conductors at the top of their game, you will be transported for 85 minutes or so into a cosmos of sound and color and mood which will stay with you long after the concert is over.

*****