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O Mensch! - James Conlon Leads the Juilliard Orchestra in Mahler's 3rd

James Conlon’s speech before the Juilliard Orchestra’s concert of the Mahler 3rd on Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall was a case in point that it is intelligence and enthusiasm, not eloquence, that makes addressing the audience a tangible success. Coincidentally, what is true for Conlon and the spoken word was equally true for the Juilliard School’s orchestra when it comes to played notes. Rather than boring the audience to tears with mundane details about financial underwriters (important as they are) or whether his second trombonists likes to bungee-jump, Conlon spoke about the third symphony and other parts of Mahler’s oeuvre in a way that was accessible enough to make sense to the Mahler newbies in the audience and personal enough to be entertaining to all those Mahler aficionados that thought nothing of facing temperatures near zero in order to make it to a live performance of a (and any) Mahler symphony.

Other Reviews:

T. L. Ponick, Young musicians lift Mahler's work (Washington Times, December 15)

Tim Page, A First-Rate Mahler Third (Washington Post, December 15)
Opening this longest of Mahler’s symphonies (too long? Nonsense!) was brass that blazed out of the box without inhibitions. With these back-benchers providing the Ur-world sound of the symphony and violas and celli entering in rhythmic lockstep, Conlon and his ‘kids’ quickly established the first movement as one where precision was the first order. This worked more often for than against the symphony, even if a fair amount of uncleanliness entered the players’ contribution later in this taxing 30-plus minute movement. Smoother transitions between the various musical blocks should have been possible (with the exception of the Mahler 9th, I don’t ever want to be reminded of Bruckner in his works) while the solo passages (first violin especially) were exceptional. At its best, the orchestra worked like a grand accordion in the sweeping passages of the movement stipulated to be Kräftig and Entschieden (which it was!) while the latter half lacked in fluidity in several points. Especially the exposed and long horn passages (which are, admittedly, difficult to pull off for any player/orchestra) were not ideal. The best performances of that symphony seems organic, a living One from wherein all themes and notes emerge as though it could not happen any other way. It was that organic element that was missing at the crucial moments but it was replaced with said excitement of the more involved and thrusting passages in which the Juilliard Orchestra excelled.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No.3, C.Abbado / BPh
The off-stage Posthorn-solo may have been four hiccuped notes shy of perfection but it was particularly and enchantingly lyrical, while several string players really got into the spirit of the Scherzando - a healthy corrective to watching professionals sleep-walk through a performance with faces of pure boredom. On that note, it is worth mentioning that the Juilliard Orchestra may “only” be a youth orchestra and that they did indeed not play at the level of perfection that I have heard some professional orchestras play some of the time. But the far more important and interesting matter is that it is rarer to hear a professional orchestra play more polished than to hear one play with even half the vitality. In the following movements again, the more ravishing the music-the better was the playing, a trait the students in this orchestra shared in common with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s 9th in Washington in May.

The steady and straightforward performance of mezzo Jane Gilbert was good, self conscious in avoiding all hissing sounds – with a trace of good country girl. I would not have wanted a bigger voice; if anything, I would have wanted a more lithe, more seductive, more urban, more mysterious voice. Anne Sofie von Otter or Anna Larsson come to mind – but that’s a Mahlerian’s wishful thinking. Reilly-Lewis's Cathedral Choral Society’s choir along with the National Cathedral School’s Children’s Choir made a most valuable contribution to the success of the whole, too – not only considering that one dress rehearsal was all they got in performance with the orchestra.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No.3, P.Boulez / WPh
The sixth movement is one of the finest, most appealing in Mahler’s output. Slow, solemn and with tons of Empfindung which is just like the Juilliard Orchestra played it. That finale, from the first note and only getting better as it continued, was simply phenomenal. Those who heard this symphony for the very first time surely became instant converts to the Mahler cause… a cause we sometimes forget was far from the mainstream just forty and even thirty years ago when Mahler was considered an eclectic’s showcase vehicle and not much more. (The music world needed Rafael Kubelik and Leonard Bernstein’s efforts in what was essentially the ‘second coming’ of Mahler, to establish the ground from which Mahler moved into the repertoire of every self-respecting orchestra.)

It took James Conlon – a hot candidate for the succession of Leonard Slatkin and back in town with the NSO in the second week of January – longer to recover from the tour de force than the audience which leapt unto its feet in an uniform instant, applauding along with the trampling and cheering orchestra members far longer than hitherto experienced at the Kennedy Center. When Mahler’s 2nd and 8th come around in June, you can’t say we weren’t prepared!