Listeners within earshot of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s great Mahler centennial celebrations of a few years ago may find themselves wondering whether the celebrations have really ended. Mahler made his presence heard at Disney Hall three times last season alone; this season it’ll be four (five if one counts a forthcoming program which includes an early chamber work). His time has come, alright... with a vengeance. Familiarity, for now, has bred fatigue not only with the music, but with the performers who must struggle ever harder to distinguish themselves in these warhorses. Susanna Mälkki’s direction of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony last Thursday bore the bruises of that struggle. For the second time in seven months, the work was programmed at Disney Hall. Whether she was aware of that or not, the question remained: How to justify yet another performance of one of the composer’s most popular scores?

It was a performance that started boldly, with the opening trumpet fanfare (played by principal Thomas Hooten) sounding like a stark cry over a battle-scarred landscape, then breaking forth in a terrific tutti that pinned the listener to their seat. The Fifth’s bipartite first section allowed Mälkki, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, much space to display her knack for building climaxes. Impressive as they were, these successions of hall-rattling climaxes sapped the dynamic energy and contrasts of this work. Her sudden, momentary accelerations and decelerations sapped the energy and architectural force from this score.

The mighty Scherzo that comprises Part II was smoother and more unified in conception, though lacking in focus. In Part I, Mälkki cranked up the funereal hysterics to 11. Part II, on the other hand, dialed back the knob to a more reasonable, if duller 4. The wistful, shadowy waltzes that rustle in the movement’s quieter moments sounded sounded earthbound, as if though the Viennese phantoms that twirl elegantly and ominously in this music had suddenly lost their sense of Schwung.

The biggest surprise was Mälkki’s eccentric reading of the dewy Adagietto that opens Part III. Debate has been heated in the past couple of decades concerning the tempo of this movement. Early performers of the work, such as Willem Mengelberg, Bruno Walter and the composer himself kept performances to about 8 minutes in length. Later conductors, such as Rafael Kubelík and, most famously, Leonard Bernstein stretched out this love music into an elegiac dirge lasting upwards of 10 or 11 minutes. Mälkki took her cue from the latter group and then bested them at their own game. She drew out the music for a total of 13 and a hlaf minutes... nearly two minutes longer than Bernstein and within hailing distance of Hermann Scherchen’s notorious 15 minute performance. But for all the slowness, Mälkki appeared more concerned with admiring the beauty of the music and the silvery Philharmonic strings for their own sake, independent of structural or expressive necessity germane to the score. The long breaths her tempi required were unable to keep the music from sagging. Strings and harp, instead, hung like limp flesh off the frame of this music.

The Finale was perhaps the most conventionally paced and molded of the symphony’s five movements. But by this point it was hard to quell the thought that Mälkki, who had come in strong, if not quite put-together in Part I, had started losing focus in Part II, fixated on the Adagietto, then simply lost interest by the symphony’s close. Raucous it certainly was at moments, but somehow cheerless, nevertheless.

There was a sprightliness in the music that preceded the Mahler. Steve Reich’s most recent score, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered that evening, had the characteristic pep of some of the composer’s finest music, betraying nothing of his age. Modeled on the Baroque concerto grosso, the score’s concertante aspect was not heard to ideal effect Thursday night, with solo instruments sometimes muddied, or buried altogether.

Reich, like Haydn, Janáček or Vaughan Williams before him, has managed in his later years to create works suffused with the experience gained over a lifetime, yet untouched by the weariness that can accumulate with the passing of the years. His latest opus sparkles with a zestful sunniness that makes the music of many younger composers today sound geriatric in comparison, and helped to lighten the emotional load of the Mahler that followed.

***11