“What makes Mahler’s music like opium,” I once got asked. If you enjoy listening to lush melodies and pompous brass calls in fine Wagnerian traditions, or get stimulated sonically by a large orchestra, you have got a foot in the door. To be a full Mahler convert, if you belong to a cohort of listeners curious in the forces of life or the wonders of nature decoded in music, and can tolerate long durations of musical materials in the form of contrasts and repetition, then welcome to the world of Gustav Mahler. The musical challenges are as great to musicians as they are to listeners. Ask any musician – the trumpet player, the cellist or the oboist – each one will tell you from experience that Mahler’s music is one that requires the utmost concentration, patience and sensitivity to apprehend in language. Once decoded, the rewards can be wondrous.

Thomas Dausgaard © Per Morten Abrahamsen
Thomas Dausgaard
© Per Morten Abrahamsen

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) took on the challenge to present an evening devoted almost entirely to Mahler. Despite an ongoing flu season in Toronto, this did not impede the concert from being well-attended. It certainly did not stop the 15 or so individuals from the local Toronto Mahler Society from supporting the music of their beloved composer; each came to experience new insights and surprises.

The concert started with the unfinished 1820 String Quartet in C Minor of Schubert, which was played by four principals of the TSO: concertmaster Jonathan Crow, second violin Paul Meyer, violist Teng Li, and cellist Joseph Johnston. Their echoes in the opening tremolos casted a dark fate, assisted by their superlative playing that sounded almost orchestral. Although the Roy Thomson Hall does not provide ideal standards for chamber music, the four musicians succeeded in bringing out a nervous excitement that permeated in this piece, fitting nicely as a mini-overture into the Mahler that followed. Fast-forwarded by half a century, they were joined by Canadian pianist Jamie Parker to present the Piano Quartet in A Minor. Written in Mahler's student days, it may be appreciated as a disguised 10 minute movement of a Mahler symphony. Led by Crow on the violin, the musicians chose a slower tempo to outline the abounding changes in colour and modulations between the three major themes. Crow’s phrasing produced a welcoming effect; he mimicked what sounded like a descending scale of a soprano’s voice near the coda. Parker provided sensible care, although he certainly saved his roar until the dashing octave chords came at the climax. What seemed missing throughout this piece, though, was a sense of soaring romanticism, a dark pathos that would match the setting imbued in this music. It was left in the following symphony where music and drama aligned.

Leading the TSO in the gargantuan Symphony No.6 was the Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard. Maestro Dausgaard exercised effective measures in delivering a compelling performance, from his attention in the articulation and speed of the violin glissandos in the Scherzo movement to his determination in setting the tone of the piece by placing the Andante movement in front of the Scherzo. The Sixth Symphony has an overall bitter taste linked to the fate of its hero, conferring its nickname “Tragic,” and making this piece into one of Mahler’s most radical symphonies in expansive proportions. The Symphony requires a considerable orchestral force, with the wind section alone totalling 19 players and the brass section a further 20. Thus, it was another daunting task for Maestro Dausgaard, in which he did a fantastic job in weighting the sonic balance of this musical force to achieve tantalizing effects. Watching the Maestro conduct also provided an additional window of apprehension into the meaningful powers of this music. For instance, signals from his clawed left hand demanding on more bowing from the strings translated into an intimacy of nostalgia in the Andante, whereas his almost flickering baton technique at the very end of the same movement conferred a brittle delicacy that paired with the soft echoes likened to distant landscapes.

The TSO benefited from several noteworthy highlights throughout this evening, including the wonderfully aristocratic horn playing from English horn player Neil Deland in the first movement and subsequently in his duo dialogue with Crow in the Andante, the serene, almost pastoral atmospheres conferred by Sara Jeffrey in her numerous oboe episodes, the mellow character of the bass clarinettist (David Bourque) in the first movement that captured a sense of loneliness, even the excellent coordination by John Rudolph and his percussive toys, including the first use of cowbells and the powerful hammer strokes of the Finale that evoked a total height of abandonment. Many came out from the concert in trance and high with a Mahler fever. Certainly, I was one of them.

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