Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is a journey of the human heart, through episodes of intense satisfaction and intense pain, with stops for humor, irony and even a little sarcasm along the way. In the closing minutes, the composer takes us to the very edge of earthly existence and, with an understandable hesitancy, peers into the unknown. Slowly, that tentativeness, with its unsettling melodic fragments and moments of total silence, gives way to an inner calm that allows the roughly 90-minute work to close in a gentle harmonic resolution of unspeakable beauty.
Satisfying performances of Mahler’s Ninth leave you rapt and even quite drained by those final sounds, as if you’ve been let in on the deepest emotions and secrets of another person’s life, only to realize that they’re yours, too.
In what I’d readily call her finest achievement to date at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop led her forces in a powerful, involving account of this enormously challenging score Sunday afternoon at the Meyerhoff.
The conductor sometimes seems to keep just enough distance from a piece of music to leave her own feelings in check. Not this time. From the start, she got far inside the notes, and there was something richly involving about the music-making throughout. It was gratifying to experience Alsop and the BSO on such a ...
taut wavelength; that rapport said a lot about everyone onstage, how far they’ve traveled together in a few short years.
The bittersweet quality of the first movement, the mix of resignation and angst, reflection and anger, emerged tellingly under Alsop’s guidance. Although I would have welcomed a little more nuance in the second movement, and a wilder rush in the coda of the third, the conductor’s deftly detailed approach to both of those portions of the symphony nonetheless spoke tellingly. The closing Adagio, a long, aching hymn of farewell, was allowed plenty of breathing room, but never lost its internal tension. And Alsop ensured that the autumnal, lit-from-within glow of Mahler’s orchestral coloring came though beautifully.
Although there were a few minor rough spots in the execution (primarily articulation slips in the finale), the overall discipline and commitment of the playing proved impressive throughout. There was great warmth from the strings, considerable strength and subtlety from the brass and woodwinds. Solo efforts were not of uniform polish, but all were expressively shaped. Those by concertmaster Jonathan Carney generated particular eloquence.
It was a great idea to open the program with a short work of Bernstein’s, the Opening Prayer for voice and orchestra, written a few years before the conductor/composer’s death in 1990. The piece offers a kind of condensed summation of Bernstein’s musical idioms, as if a few notes extracted from his symphonies and Broadway and film scores underwent a fusion process. The result is quite striking.
After the orchestra lays out darkly lyrical melodic ideas, a voice intones an ancient Hebrew text (“May the Lord bless you and keep you ... and give you peace”). That haunting prayer took on a deeper meaning in this context, providing a sort of mini-requiem to lead into Mahler’s symphony – and providing a reminder of the Bernstein/Mahler theme underlining the BSO’s programming this season. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, positioned in a box above the orchestra, sang the solo lines with an exquisite, velvety tone.
I only wish this magical prelude had not been followed by applause and a pause, while Alsop went back offstage for a few moments. How much more effective it would have been if, after Cooke’s last, serene, long-held high note, a brief silence had given way to the pensive opening of Mahler’s Ninth.
PHOTO OF MARIN ALSOP COURTESY OF BSO/PHOTO OF SASHA COOKE COURTESY OF YOUNG CONCERT ARTISTS, INC.