When Yannick Nézet-Séguin strode down the stairs of the Great Hall in the Concertgebouw to lead the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony no. 6 in A minor, his energy and confidence did not reveal any of his workload this past season. The young Canadian with the formidable Rotterdam Philharmonic did not disappoint. To come to the Concertgebouw and perform is one thing, but to come to the Concertgebouw and perform Mahler is quite another. When it comes to this composer, some people consider the Great Hall in the Concertgebouw to be hallowed ground. To its advantage, the Rotterdam Philharmonic carries its own Mahler tradition that dates back to Eduard Flipse during the early 20th century. Mahler's symphonies are regularly programmed at the RPO’s home in De Doelen, and several years ago at the Concertgebouw the musicians performed an enchanting and memorable rendition of Das Lied von der Erde, also with Nézet-Séguin in charge. Tonight again, this combination proved itself confidently at home in Mahler at the Concertgebouw. With the five minute standing ovation after this dramatic, yet sensitive, performance, the audience clearly agreed.

Nézet-Séguin led the orchestra in a firm but leisurely way. In the Allegro energico, ma non troppo with its abrupt opening and tempo changes, the conductor directed his orchestra with a precise emphasis on each section, granting them ample opportunity to define their timbres. The particularly strong and crisp percussion section generated the increasing sense of danger that ominously builds up in the first movement, noticeably increased during the first return to Mahler’s opening theme. The glockenspiel, located at the top of the stairs right on the edge of the orchestra, provided an almost ethereal mood to the overall sound and sustained this unearthly ambience with each return in later movements.

In the second movement, the Scherzo: Wuchtig, Nézet-Séguin clearly emphasized Mahler’s exploration in the boundaries of tonality – jarring and tempestuous, but never atonal. The conductor navigated his orchestra easily through the rapid tempi changes. It was here that the first clarinet player provided steady warmth during the hectic clashes between each section. This clarinettist continued to shine in the later movements, as he added a softening glow to the otherwise unsettling higher notes.

The highlight of the evening took place during the third movement. As he slowed down the tempo, taking the orchestra back to a languid pace, Nézet-Séguin offered his lyrical finesse to the Andante moderato. Under his guidance, the exploration of Mahler’s sweeping theme evoked a beautiful melancholy, though never falling into melodramatic tackiness. The dynamic between the oboe, clarinet, and horn revealed another strength of the orchestra: the leaders of each section stood their ground while interacting affectionately with the other timbres.

In the Finale: Allegro moderato, Nézet-Séguin continued his steady but energetic guidance, hopping and skipping throughout the faster tempi, but delicate and attentive during the slower ones. The celesta and harp provided a soothing, mysterious tranquillity between the faster parts. The strokes of the hammer produced an enormous clouds of dust, heightening the performance with dramatic visual effect. Also noteworthy was the concertmaster performed his solo parts with romantic sensitivity. While the triangle continued to ring high above the other sections, Yannick moved easily through the devilish tempi changes, leading his orchestra to that final peaceful tug on the strings. Now it’s up for audiences in San Sebastian, Edinburgh, and Paris to enjoy Yannick’s oddly upbeat rendition of Mahler’s Tragic Symphony.