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NSO’s uneven but often visceral Mahler Symphony No. 3

Written By | Nov 6, 2015

WASHINGTON, November 6, 2015 – Given the popularity of Mahler’s First, Second (Resurrection), Fourth and Ninth Symphonies and the famous Adagio of the Fifth (used in the film “Death in Venice”), it’s not often you get a chance to hear a live performance of his massive Third Symphony. Indeed, the NSO last performed it here some seven years ago, back in 2008.

But this weekend, DC audiences will have that rare chance to encounter it again. The National Symphony Orchestra, joined by mezzo-soprano soloist Anne Sofie von Otter, the women of the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Children’s Chorus of Washington—all under the baton of the orchestra’s music director, Christoph Eschenbach—perform Mahler’s mighty Symphony No. 3 in D-minor (1902) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

For all its size, Mahler’s Third shares a number of data-points with most of his other symphonies:

  • It was composed over a long period of time.
  • It is long and complex.
  • It does not conform to a normal symphonic structure.
  • It is loaded with the most exquisite orchestral colors, providing notable challenges for an orchestra’s first and second chair players.
  • It was originally built programmatically on an elaborate set of philosophical and quasi-religious themes which provide its structure…
  • Yet as time progressed, the composer often preferred for audiences to forget most of these structures.

One could spend quite a few column inches or an infinitude of random electrons describing this huge and complex work, but most Internet readers don’t have the patience for it, and it is possible to over-explain classical music, particularly in the case of Mahler, a tormented late-Romantic genius if there ever was one.

So let’s cut to the chase, and deploy a few more bullet points before we elaborate a bit on this musical monument.

  • This symphony is in 6, rather than the traditional 4 movements.
  • Its first movement, clocking in at roughly 45 minutes, is as long in itself as most complete symphonies in the orchestral repertoire.
  • Most of the astoundingly frequent pauses and tempo changes we hear in this symphony are really written into the score.
  • Whatever Mahler’s ultimate wishes, it does help to at least have a sentence or two on the thematic backdrop of each individual movement, as the Third, like most of Mahler’s symphonies, is really more of a towering series of tone poems than it is a conventional symphony.

While Mahler’s Second or “Resurrection” Symphony has become quite popular over recent decades, his Third, despite its obvious gigantism, has much to recommend it. With its sudden fits and starts, its massive first movement is almost Whitman-esque in its ambition. Unfolding from a series of embryonic motifs, it contains multitudes.

The movement begins with a funereal fanfare announced in the brass, which is later contrasted with lighter melodic elements. Bits and pieces are developed, then dropped in the movement’s numerous false endings, many of them ending mysteriously with a low, bass drum roll and a moment of silence before another seemingly random thread picks up the action.

But this seeming randomness and aimlessness has a purpose, as the various elements gradually coalesce into the passionate and brilliant flourishes that bring the movement to a triumphal close.

For the most part, Maestro Eschenbach and the NSO kept this movement in perspective, albeit moving things a bit slowly at times. Mr. Eschenbach seemed actually to relish the movement’s initial shapelessness, pausing the proceedings carefully after each episode before gradually knitting things together bit by bit.

Unfortunately, at times, this seemed to pull individual orchestral sections slightly offsides, tempo-wise, and the movement didn’t come across quite as crisply as it should. The extensive and showy passages for brass in this movement, however, came across quite brilliantly, save for a random sour note or two.

The significantly shorter second movement marks a considerable contrast with the symphony’s chaotic, world-encompassing first. Here, we have the charming side of Mahler delivering a pastoral scene – the movement had earlier been titled “Flower Piece” – with most of his signature storminess taking a time out. It’s an odd, sometimes disjointed garden, this movement, offering many surprises along the way. Mr. Eschenbach and his musicians gave it an easy, carefree reading that perfectly matched its intent and mood.

The third movement introduces itself as a carnival of birds. In the scheme of this symphony, it’s a true scherzo, twittering, fluttering and chattering its way along as nature works its way into an occasional frenzy—which is suddenly interrupted by a lovely, poignant melody that wafts over the scene courtesy of an offstage post-horn, one of Mahler’s lovelier symphonic touches.

The movement worked generally well, although for whatever reason, the post-horn had occasional issues with some of the upper notes, slightly breaking the tranquil, almost Alpine mood its presence is meant to evoke.

The fourth and fifth movements, when compared to the others, are really quite brief, particularly the fourth, a strangely disquieting and foreboding excursion into the world of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose warning words Mahler gives to the mezzo-soprano soloist: “O Mensch! Gib Acht!” In English, “O Man! Take heed!”

In this performance, Mahler’s otherworldly herald was sung by well-known Anne Sophie von Otter, who announced her nearly monotone warning quietly from the upper chorister seats to the orchestra rear. But just when things seem at their gloomiest, Mahler and his soloist shift the mood, departing from a sense of woe and pain to the possibility of eternal happiness. The music and the soloist wax lyrical for a brief moment before subsiding, and Ms. von Otter perfectly captured the shift in mood.

With hopefulness again a possibility, Mahler transists to yet another contrasting movement, the fifth, in which a women’s chorus joins a boy’s or children’s chorus (the latter in this performance) to sing a lilting, bouncy essay whose words are taken from Mahler’s go-to anthology of poems, “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”).

For the most part, the women sing the joyful song of the angels, while the children mimic tinkling, chiming bells, aided by one of the orchestra’s percussionists who plays the tubular bells in background. Even here, however, Mahler shifts moods, bringing the mezzo-soprano back to bring this soaring little movement back to a brief, mournful reality that echoes the previous movement. But the bells and the angels prevail.

Taken as a pair, both these short movements seem to be a prelude to the symphony’s gorgeous and unusual Adagio finale, which is essentially a wordless, purely orchestral hymn to love—for which both sorrow and foreboding (the fourth movement) and great, almost heavenly joy (the fifth) are the key.

The orchestra seemed to be at its very best in these final three movements, creating a perfect contrast between the fourth and fifth movements, leading to an inspiring apotheosis in the sixth, with the massive brass choirs sounding particularly impressive.

On the whole, Mr. Eschenbach and his combined forces gave a good reading of this unwieldy, difficult symphony although there were some things that could have been a bit better.

There were issues here and there with intonation and tempo, particularly in that episodic first movement. The choral forces in the fifth movement were occasionally a bit too quiet for my taste, particularly with regard to the children’s chorus, which had their notes right but lost points for diction and a lack of crispness when singing their bell-like “Bimm! Bamm!” refrain.

On the other hand, a symphony like this, infrequently performed as it is, needs extra practice if at all possible, something that’s rarely an option, time and cost-wise, for a major U.S. symphony orchestra. Still…

Happily, however, there was a great deal to like in the Thursday performance we attended. As already noted, the brass generally sounded terrific, given that I tend to unfairly compare all brass sections with those I experienced as a youngster attending concerts given by George Szell’s incomparable Cleveland Orchestra in the 1950s and 1960s. Whenever an orchestra’s brass players bring me back to that era, I know they’re doing something magnificently right.

Another item: All Mahler’s symphonies severely tax an orchestra’s first- and sometimes second-chair players as well, and his third symphony is one of the greatest “offenders” in this regard. But the NSO’s section leaders stepped up to the plate in Thursday’s performance, giving us a rare opportunity to see what truly fine musicians this orchestra has folded into its fabric of sound. From violin to cello, to trumpet and even to percussion, the many brief solo turns in this symphony were quite impressive on the whole.

But we reserve a special hat tip for the orchestra’s principal trombonist, Craig Mulcahy. While the trombone is often a key part of a jazz band, the trombone in a symphony orchestra generally works more or less behind the scenes as a vital but fairly unobtrusive part of the jazz choir.

Mahler’s third, however, frequently places the principal trombone front and center during key dramatic moments. And on Thursday, Mr. Mulcahy sounded and performed, as the song says, like “the best that’s ever been.”

Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half out of four stars)

Performance dates: Performed as a single work without intermission, the NSO’s presentation of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 will be repeated tonight, Friday, November 6 and tomorrow, Saturday, November 7 at 8 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Tickets: Tickets are priced from $15-99 for remaining performances. For tickets and information, visit the NSO’s page on the Kennedy Center website, or call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324 (Toll-free).

Note: Anne Sofie von Otter will sign CDs in the Grand Foyer outside the Concert Hall after Friday evening’s performance.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17