Never let it be said that Yannick Nézet-Séguin lacks a work ethic. In between performances of Dialogues des Carmélites at the Metropolitan Opera this week, the maestro snuck away from New York to lead his Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 9 in D minor. Don’t ask me how he managed to squeeze in rehearsals or found the energy to conduct a score that stretches on for close to two intermission-less hours. However he came to it, the end result was a fascinating, revealing and ultimately thrilling account of this monumental work.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Hans van der Woerd

Nézet-Séguin has made Mahler a cornerstone of his tenure in Philadelphia, but even the most passionate and skilled interpreter of the composer can be confounded by the nature of this particular piece. As Mahler’s last completed symphony before his death at the age of fifty, it departs significantly from the bombastic yet hopeful ethos of earlier works.

Pulling together all the disparate ideas encompassed across its four movements requires both intellectual vigor and uncommon stamina – qualities Nézet-Séguin effortlessly displayed. The conductor, who favors leading symphonic works sans baton, seemed to be pulling back the curtain on Mahler’s intentions from his first sweeping gesture onward.

The orchestra’s sound under Nézet-Séguin’s leadership continues to grow leaner and more focused, while still retaining the sense of sweep and grandeur that has defined it for decades. That shift made for a particularly interesting aural approach to Mahler. The maestro clearly belongs to the school of thought that interprets the Ninth as an acknowledgement of impending death, but his reading avoided any lachrymose wallowing. Instead, he united the movements as a journey towards the end of life, with all the beauty and suffering such a voyage entails. Program notes referenced the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her landmark stages of grief, which provide a unique lens for the work and its ultimate statement about mortality.

A sense of anger emanated from the Andante comodo, as the slashing violin arpeggios resembled a strong voice screaming anguish into the void. Led by concertmaster David Kim, that sound emerged as a gut punch, a mixture of flawless technique and overwhelming emotion. The underlying cellos offered a sense of foreboding – the feeling that something around the corner would soon cause a sense of deep pain. In the distance, the doubled harps suggested a heartbeat growing ever fainter until it came to nothing. The presence of death reached an almost vanitas level of centrality.

So when the orchestra transitioned into the sprightly Ländler, the dissonance jarred the listener... just as it should. This was denial creeping into the room, and into the composer’s soul, as he looked back to the kind of music that infused his earlier career. Nézet-Séguin infused this section with the liveliness of a country dance, but he embedded the edges with a sense of dread that anticipated the ominous Rondo-Burleske in the third movement. “Don’t get so comfortable,” he seems to say. “Soon, we will leave this cheerful world for good.”

The downward progression of the final Adagio certainly feels like a retreat from the world, resolving into a concluding silence that can be taken as the ultimate acceptance of death. It’s haunting in theory, but when performed, it requires a conductor and orchestra to keep up momentum throughout a long section that continually subverts the listener’s expectations for how a symphony should end. Nézet-Séguin made the section interesting anew by indicating the inevitability of death; this was acceptance after a long fight by the composer to express every last emotion, before he put down his pen for the last time. He also brought to the fore echoes of traditional Jewish music that Mahler embedded in the movement, with a solo violin line played by concertmaster Kim that recalled the slow, deliberate dreydlakh trills of klezmer.

Stunned silence filled Verizon Hall at the symphony’s conclusion, as Nézet-Séguin slouched his shoulders in an expression of physical exhaustion. A moment later, he snapped up to his usual ebullient self, as the crowd burst into ecstatic applause. That split-second shift from collapse to exuberance captured the ethos of the evening – a celebration of life, death and the legacy of great music.