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Slatkin and the NSO Speak Austrian

Mahler's Ninth Symphony—since Bernstein's analysis seen as a gateway to modernism—was the National Symphony Orchestra's Thursday's worth of work. Leondard Slatkin took his time to introduce the work with orchestral examples, thus making a work that is still forbidding to many (or new, to the many young people in the audience) more accessible. From Mahler's "irregular heartbeat" (from which he suffered and which contributed to his death, three years later) in the first movement to references to Das Lied von der Erde, from the second movement's three waltz types to links with the second symphony, Slatkin illustrated with the NSO at hand. There was some conjecture and some of the examples may have gone over the heads of some in the audience, but making people stretch mentally is better than trying to reach a lowest common denominator, and when it came to pointing out the last movement's similarities with Bruckner's third movement from his ninth symphony I thought he had revealed a very interesting and moving connection between these otherwise so disparate composers.

I have listened to more Mahler 9ths than can be healthy over the last few weeks, all in the name of my upcoming review of Michael Tilson Thomas's latest recording. Still, I would not miss a chance to hear this bear of a work live. (There are plenty of chances to do so these days. Apart from repeat performances of the NSO today at 8.00 PM and on Sunday at 7.00 PM, Daniel Barenboim will conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler 9th on May 10th at 8.00 PM in the Kennedy Center. Add to that the Peabody Symphony Orchestra at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center performing Mahler's Sixth Symphony on Wednesday April 27th at 8.00 pm for the total Spring-Mahler-bonanza.) Even with this flurry of performances, there still are not so many of them that we can be too picky, and the very experience of live Mahler is so overwhelming that concerns about the finer points of performance and interpretation become mute. Even the finest recorded performance cannot recreate the impact and involvement of being evolved by the Austrian's monumental sound world.

That said, I can hail the programming and the performance present, all awhile noting that, yes, there were some problems with the NSO's playing, both on an individual level and as a whole. And even Slatkin's obviously loving and caring leadership did not prevent some of the slower, sparse moments of the first movement from losing their cohesion. I have yet to be convinced that most members of the NSO (especially the string section) actually care about the music they play, much less love it, but despite that, the first movement was more than serviceable.

The second movement seemed to jibe better with everyone and was crisp, swift: downright excellent. Had someone decided to applaud it—out of ignorance or conscious dissent from our days' norm—I may have joined in, rather than sighing with ostentatious annoyance. The same goes for the third movement. Well paced, well played, and with some beautiful playing from first violist Daniel Foster. Its finale was fast and furious with the orchestra almost getting ahead of itself, as though running down hill, losing control of one's legs. No one got hurt, though, and all tumbled into a last movement that was more astounding still, for its beauty of execution. Only the very end did not quite manage to carry the preceding sway to the last notes. Tension, richness and sweeping lyricism were all there in that heart-wrenching movement, the only one in Mahler that contains something resembling relief, closure, or solution. (Hence the link to Bruckner?) In those last three movements I undoubtedly heard the best Mahler-playing from the NSO to date.

I would have recommended even a so-so performance for the chance to hear Mahler live, alone. But at this level, so much better than I could reasonably have expected, and at reduced ticket prices, it's almost a must-go.

P.S. Even if one of my equally Mahler-obsessed acquaintances disagreed ("mediocre" was his all-too-harsh verdict), I insist that this was not just good given my low expectations... it was simply good.

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