For around 90 minutes last Sunday the Oregon Symphony gave an emotionally satisfying interpretation of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in D major, a colossal work that can separate the best orchestras from the also rans. The orchestra, under the direction of music director and conductor Carlos Kalmar plumbed the depths of masterpiece, written at the end of Mahler’s life when he was suffering from a serious heart ailment and problems related to stress.
This symphony is usually described as Mahler’s farewell to life, and I could easily feel that underlying sadness from the outset of the first movement, when the music repeatedly spirals downward. The music didn’t wallow in a puddle of sorrow, because the orchestra revealed the conflicting emotions of someone who struggled to rally himself and delay the inevitable for as long as possible. Concertmaster Jun Iwasaki played his solo passages wonderfully. Principal timpanist Paul Salvatore made created ponderous heartbeats.
The second movement took on a much lighter character as orchestra embarked on an Austrian peasant dance called a Ländler, which was announced with humor by principal bassoonist Evan Kuhlmann. The rustic and joyful quality of this part of the symphony made me think that Mahler was going back to some earlier part of his life when things were happier. Comical also was the way that a couple of the phrases were punctuated at the end by the tuba, played wonderfully by principal JáTik Clark.
The Rondo-Burleske of the third movement had a hurly-burly quality that calmed down and brought back the sense of tragedy. I really enjoyed he rainbow of notes from principal harpist Jennifer Craig after the commotion passed by.
The fourth movement, Adagio, contained so many interesting sounds that it was a challenge to take them in. I loved the pairing of the first violins and the contrabassoon. The French horns sections elevated their instruments altogether to make a glorious, burnished sound. Principal cellist Nancy Ives performed her solo marvelously, and the violins, violas, and cellos concluded the symphony on a somber notes as if Mahler had come to grips with his aloneness in the world.
Outstanding was the way that Kalmar and the orchestra could speed up and slow down organically. They also blended well whenever they increased or decreased the volume. There were times when the sound seemed to dwindle down to nothing at all.
The string sections played superbly together. The large woodwind section (18 in all) were magnificent. The brass were polished to a high relief. Kudos to principal trumpet Jeffrey Work and to principal French horn John Cox. A couple of times in an exposed passage, a high note on the piccolo, played excellently by Carla Wilson, matched the strings perfectly.
All in all, this performance of Mahler’s 9th was the highlight of the season for me. I would’ve liked to have attended every evening just to catch differences in nuance from once performance to another. A big thank you to the orchestra and Kalmar for taking a chance on this demanding work. Their performance was rewarding in every aspect.
Seat count: It was a nicely filled house on Sunday evening. I’m guessing that more than 80 percent of the seats were occupied in the balcony.