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February 25, 2009

Peabody Symphony's respectable account of the Mahler Ninth

Even Gustav Mahler, who famously predicted his time would come, might be surprised that student orchestras would take up his symphonies without a second thought. In his day, the composer often faced dubious, even rebellious musicians -- not to mention audiences and critics.

Mahler's valedictory Ninth Symphony, which suggests a frantic grasping onto the present life with one hand and a calm reaching out to the next life with the other, may not seem as likely a candidate for young players as, say, his more straightforward First. But Hajime Teri Murai, the dedicated director of orchestral activities at the Peabody Conservatory, doesn't consider anything off-limits, especially Mahler, who is represented annually in the Peabody Symphony Orchestra's programming.

Last night, the Ninth was addressed (before what should have been a larger audience), and the results proved quite respectable, especially after the halfway point. Earlier on, the woodwinds and brass encountered rough patches, and the strings were not entirely focused, but the musicians gradually settled more securely into the groove, technically and expressively. My guess is that a second performance would be really smokin', but one-night stands are the rule at Peabody (musically speaking, I hasten to add). ...

Most impressive was the way the ensemble tore into the third movement, articulating with considerable cohesiveness, tonal brightness and, in the mad dash of the coda, fearless speed. The ensuing finale, too, included a lot of impressive work, notably from the strings, which summoned a dark, vibrant sound. Of the various solo contributions during the performance, those by concertmaster Netanel Draiblate proved particularly confident and eloquent.

Ultimately, I wasn't terribly moved by Murai's approach to the score. He got all the main points across, to be sure, and many of the subtler ones; he shaped each movement thoughtfully, if rather heavy-handedly at times. What I missed was a sense of depth, of peering into the uncertain world beneath the score. The interpretation could have used a little more breadth in the profound outer movements, more nuance in the mercurial inner ones.

Still, enough the Ninth's soulful power certainly emerged, and it felt good to experience such big music and such big ideas in Peabody's relatively intimate Friedberg Hall.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:50 AM | | Comments (1)


Tim, I think there were as many - or more - on the stage than in the audience. I was profoundly moved by the ending. I wish the audience had waited longer before busting into applause. Before and after the performance Iistened to recordings by Bernstein and by Boulez. Somehow they seem to smooth out the dissonances more than Murai. I noticed this also in last year's 7th symphony. How is this managed? I noticed the phenomenon when Alsop played Le Sacre in extremely dissonant style and YT followed a few weeks later with one quite the opposite - how do some conductors 'tame' the dissonances and others delight in liberating them?

It's all a matter of taste and temperament, I guess. Like the way Jurowski tamed the dissonance in the Mahler 10 with the LPO. I wanted more; he kept the orchestra on a tighter leash.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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