Music Review: PSO takes on Mahler's Ninth

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In attempting to escape his fate, Mahler may have sealed it. Several of his predecessors had died after composing a Ninth Symphony and before starting or completing a Tenth – Beethoven, Dvorak, Bruckner, Schubert. Mahler tried to skirt the issue by following his Symphony No. 8 with “Das Lied von der Erde” and calling it “A Symphony for one Tenor and one Alto.” At first, Mahler wrote the Roman numeral X on the title page of his Ninth Symphony; he later added an I before the X. He died before finishing his Tenth. 

If Mahler had stayed the course, he could have avoided the whole issue. Or maybe the composer was a tragic figure whose destiny was inevitable. His Symphony No. 9 is considered a farewell to a life made made more difficult in his final years by heart disease and the death of his daughter (among other problems). 

That legacy infuses his Symphony No. 9, performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and led by music director Manfred Honeck Friday night at Heinz Hall. That the concert fell upon the 70th anniversary of D-Day was a coincidence that nonetheless added gravitas to the listening experience. The PSO’s deeply affecting rendition of the work distinguished itself with a unified vision, one that did not shy away from the issues about mortality the piece raises. 

The opening movement addressed the tension from the get-go, with Mr. Honeck’s flowing tempo and strings and woodwinds providing a comfort in contrast with the urgency of the brass and percussion, with the French horns somewhat straddling the two worlds. From their forceful entrance, the trumpets and horns sent chills down my spine – a phenomenon usually reserved for later parts of movements. The trombones’ and tuba’s rousing volume and dark timbres induced fear that grew in intensity with timpanist Ed Stephan’s recurring solo. Out of this tortured sound-world, sweet violin and oboe solos by Noah Bendix-Balgley and Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida concluded the movement on a more optimistic, if eery, tone, brightened by Rhian Kenny’s piccolo. The movement raised Mahler’s end-of-life questions without answering them.

The middle movements allowed the whole orchestra to join in the ferocity set up by the brass. While the first movement had an epic quality that reminded me of the PSO’s January performance of Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the second movement captured the character of Ravel’s “La Valse,” from April. A folk dance that goes awry, the second movement opened with fierce, spry playing from the second violins and spirited along as the dance deteriorated. While the ferocity caused balance problems between the orchestra and its soloists, the third movement corrected those issues without compromising that aggressive playing. The volume of the brass had a shock value that was a color unto itself. Out of this, flickers of hope – a dulcet trumpet solo from George Vosburgh, a shining glockenspiel – provided respite from that tension that won out in the fiery end of the movement.  

The finale brought back the comforting quality present in parts of the first movement, but here they were rendered darker, more profound. Double-basses were an organ-like foundation holding up the beautiful, elegiac refrain. Mahler, and the orchestra, made these seemingly disparate emotions become one. It was as if Mahler were resigned to mortality in this life with the knowledge his music would live on. The score’s final marking reads “ersterbend.” It means “dying away,” at least for now. 

Concert repeats 2:30 p.m. Sunday. The PSO will perform works by MacMillan, Beethoven and Brahms tonight at 8. 



Elizabeth Bloom: or 412-263-1750.

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