The key to Mahler’s music is contrast. The musical mass of his orchestral writing can be overwhelming, but the entry point for passing through this density comes from recognizing the stark shifts in orchestration, tonality, and form. Perhaps the strongest aspect of Michael Tilson Thomas and Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was their ability to heighten these contrasts, as this offered a vibrant depiction of the symphony’s raw emotional qualities.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra © Todd Rosenberg
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
© Todd Rosenberg

Nowhere were these dramatic shifts more evident than in the second movement, entitled “In the tempo of a moderate Ländler”. Although the movement fulfills the function of the symphony’s scherzo, it hardly fits neatly into this mold. Mahler crafts several themes that borrow from myriad distinct styles often found in scherzos (including the titular Ländler), and the result is a cornucopia of radical juxtapositions. The first few phrases blended together too nicely, but the pick-up entrance of the violin theme shortly thereafter was played with a brutal heaviness that vividly distinguished it from the carefree nature of the introduction. In fact, this shift was so jarring, it nearly sounded as if the orchestra would fall apart. Tilson Thomas maintains control, however, and his use of playful extremes in dynamics and tempi lent the music an extra dimension.

The finale was also imbued with this attention to contrast, albeit in a far subtler manner than that of the former example. Thematic motion is equally pivotal to the placid fourth movement, but it develops across a much larger scale. The CSO demonstrated remarkable patience, withholding their most extreme dynamics until the finale’s conclusion and giving depth to its structure that could only be appreciated in retrospect. Particularly noteworthy was the final refrain, which was a chillingly subdued string chorale that haunted the entire performance.

The achievements of several outstanding individuals contributed to the evening’s success, not the least of which was that of Tilson Thomas himself. He conducted with contagious energy and freely used the entirety of his space, which provided tangibility to the music’s emotional core. He demonstrated the reckless abandon of a NASCAR driver without a windshield, using neither score nor stand, and this gave him a thrillingly direct connection to the proceedings. His staging, which included splitting the first and second violins as well as noticeably spacing the brass and double basses from the rest of the orchestra, also gave the music a unique antiphonal quality and added extra punch to full brass attacks. Furthermore, he maintained a highly approachable rapport with the audience that began with him leaving stage after the devastating first movement to retrieve cough drops, which he then threw with childlike splendor into the audience.

While every section of the orchestra was strong, the French horns deserve special mention. Led by acting principal Daniel Gingrich, the section demonstrated astonishing dexterity and technical facility throughout the work’s seemingly endless supply of challenging passages. Whether breezing through raucous lip trills, articulating brisk runs with a surgeon’s precision, or singing out lyrical solo passages, the section shone consistently.

The evening’s only question mark came with the opening piece: Stravinsky’s Elegy for JFK. It proved to be an intriguing composition, but it was not well suited to this performance. Despite the shared connection of reflecting on death, the two pieces could not have been more different from one another – Elegy was scored for three clarinets and mezzo-soprano, featured atonal writing, and lasted a mere two minutes. While contrast in a program is generally good, the heavily skewed proportion of the two pieces’ weights proved to be too much of a distraction. Furthermore, the staging of the four players was not helpful. The entire orchestra was seated on stage, with the clarinets sitting in their usual spot and the soloist placed in the choral balcony above and behind the orchestra. While this made sense practically, it led to inevitable fazing issues between the musicians. Had this performance not coincided with the 50-year anniversary of JFK’s assassination, it would have never been included, and the concert would not have suffered from its omission.

Still, the unusual opening was not nearly enough to detract from the breathtaking and emotionally intense performance that followed. Largely through emphasizing Mahler’s inherent musical contrasts, Tilson Thomas gave yet another successful interpretation this revered classic.

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