Tragic but uplifting - Mahler's Sixth Symphony

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Tragic but uplifting - Mahler's Sixth Symphony

Post by Ricordanza » Sat Oct 08, 2016 7:08 pm

There’s a common theme to my first as well as my most recent experience with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony: catastrophe averted. My first exposure to this massive work was at a Philadelphia Orchestra concert in March 1999. The distinguished Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Most (now the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra) was scheduled to lead this work, but he was forced to cancel due to illness. But a worthy replacement, James Conlon, led a spirited and gripping performance of this symphony. On Thursday, October 6, the entire concert was on the verge of cancellation, since orchestra musicians went on strike on Friday, September 30, just prior to the opening night gala. Fortunately, a three-year contract was hammered out (I couldn’t resist the pun—more on that later) on Sunday evening, October 2, and Thursday’s concert proceeded as scheduled.

It was with a sense of occasion that this concert took place. Not only was the orchestra back after its brief strike, but the concert was led by a favorite guest conductor, Simon Rattle, in his only Philadelphia appearance this season. The concert in every way lived up to this anticipation, with a thrilling performance of one of the most compelling works in the orchestral literature.

Before my first hearing of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in March 1999, I was warned by some folks (in a different on-line forum) that the work is very depressing. Indeed, the symphony bears the subtitle “Tragic” and it is not by any means a sunny, optimistic work. But I was drawn into the work during that performance, and after repeated opportunities to hear it through recordings and live performances, it’s far from depressing to me. On the contrary, my reaction to this symphony can only be described as uplifting.

It is classically structured, with the usual four movements, but with anything but the usual sounds we hear in a symphony from the classical era. Take the opening movement, which, in the classical format, features two contrasting themes. But what a contrast! The piece opens with a brutal march, while the second theme is the passionate “Alma” motif. One could say that there is a struggle between these two themes, but it’s a magnificent struggle. The slow movement is appropriately lyrical but there is more than a tinge of melancholy to this otherwise lovely music. The Scherzo is even darker in a taunting way. And the supercharged Finale, with its famous hammer blows of fate (delivered by a percussionist with a Paul Bunyan sized mallet), comes this close to a triumphant climax, before concluding on a note of surrender and resignation.

So after all this darkness and despair, why was I uplifted by this performance? Because this piece, in all of its 80 minutes, contains some of the most imaginative and amazingly orchestrated music that Mahler ever wrote. And because Rattle led a brilliant performance (from memory!) that, in its precision, balance and superb solo playing brought out the best of this great orchestra.

During the lengthy standing ovation, the rapport between Rattle and this orchestra was clearly demonstrated. The conductor did not merely gesture to the various soloists to take a bow, but rather, walked over to each one to acknowledge their contribution. And when he reached Concertmaster David Kim, the two embraced. I have never seen this at a Philadelphia Orchestra concert.

Much will certainly be written about solving the long term financial problems of this orchestra. But in the meantime, it remains a treasure of the musical world.

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