Sweetness in Death: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Memorable Rendition of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

For this past weekend’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, a friend of mine, violin performance major at the Moores School of Music, was gracious enough to write his thoughts on the concert…

By Nicholas Hatt

Despite having started work on a 10th symphony, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in D Major is in fact the composer’s last and final complete symphonic work before his death in 1911. It is fitting that the work as a whole serves a final farewell to the world, in which each movement acts as a departure from various aspects life, and at some point even life itself. The conductor Herbert von Karajan best said of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 that it was “music coming from another world … coming from eternity.” Concertgoers at the Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, in attendance of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s performance this past Friday evening, were treated to a memorable presentation of this momentous work, in which the music emanating from this world-class ensemble was truly from another world.

Maestro Manfred Honeck’s vision for this work was beautifully played out among the members of the Pittsburgh Symphony. The opening notes of the symphony seemed to transpire from nowhere, and the somber mood presented in the opening continued throughout the entire work in either outright tragedy or in meaningful longing. These themes in particular are presented in the first movement as Mahler struggles with the spiritual idea of death and leaving behind love and the earth. Here, Maestro Honeck’s own Austrian musical background can clearly be heard as he leads the orchestra throughout the intimate passages in an expressive Viennese manner.

The second and third movements, which were Mahler’s farewell to the country and an urban cultural life respectively, truly showcased this world class symphony’s capabilities stylistically, lyrically, and in virtuosity. Stylistically, the ensemble easily captured both the lush and rural nature of the Austrian countryside in the second movement and the dignified, exuberant, and cultured Viennese city life found in the third. The lyrical and expressive passages were executed with the greatest finesse and intimacy in both of these movements, particularly in the third’s movement’s respite before the movements’ fiery close. The incredible execution of the symphony’s third movement stands as a monument to the talent of the individual musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, who executed the passagework with the utmost precision, technical prowess and gracefulness. In fact, had the symphony ended with the third movement’s final powerful notes, it is almost guaranteed that the audience would have erupted in applause, immediately following the final note.

However, Mahler unusually wrote his ninth symphony to conclude on much more somber mood, which was clearly communicated during the concert. The final movement was dedicated to life itself and the bittersweet departure from life into death. Passion, conviction and pure emotion filled the hall as the symphony performed the final stretch of this work. The symphony itself produced a sound that was so warm and emotionally charged, that it seemed music itself portrayed death as more warm and welcoming, perhaps more than Mahler himself might have intended. After the powerful climax of the movement subsided, the orchestra began its descent into the silence of death, ending the symphony just as it began. The concluding moments of this passionate performance by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra left the audience almost reluctant to clap at its conclusion. The near dead silence of the audience erupted into cheers and applause. Bravo to every single member of this fantastic ensemble in executing their role in this symphony to the best of their ability and pulling off a truly moving and phenomenal evening.

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