- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave an inspired reading Saturday to Gustav Mahler’s tragic Ninth Symphony, a work that found the composer obsessed not only with cosmic issues but also with the expressive limits of conventional tonality. Music Director Marin Alsop conducted the concert at Strathmore.

Plagued with family sorrows and health problems and near the end of his relatively brief life — not to mention the loss of his position as conductor and director of the Vienna Court Opera in 1907 — Mahler packed up his bags and headed to New York City. There, he served a short tenure as director of the Metropolitan Opera before moving on to direct the New York Philharmonic in 1909. Both brief tenures, unfortunately, were stormy.

It was against this backdrop that Mahler moved toward completion of his Ninth Symphony, though he never heard the work performed. He was exhausted by his endless wrangling with New York’s headstrong arts patrons, and his weak heart finally gave out. He died in Vienna in 1911, just shy of his 51st birthday.

The following year, the Ninth was performed for the first time under the baton of Bruno Walter in Vienna. Like most of Mahler’s symphonies, it fell into relative neglect until Leonard Bernstein began a successful crusade to revive the composer’s work in the 1950s.

Fittingly, the BSO led off Saturday evening’s concert with a performance of Mr. Bernstein’s brief “Opening Prayer.” Written for the 1986 reopening of Carnegie Hall, this work, like Mahler’s symphony, was written in the composer’s twilight years. He died in 1990.

Maestra Alsop, who studied with Mr. Bernstein as an aspiring conductor, undoubtedly programmed “Opening Prayer” as a kind of invocation to the spirit of the earlier master. The BSO gave a restrained, almost reverent performance of this work as mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke intoned the Benediction, in Hebrew, from the balcony seats behind the instrumentalists.

Throughout his previous eight symphonies, Mahler stretched traditional Western tonality to its limit. Though not entirely breaking with the past as Arnold Schoenberg did in his 12-tone system, Mahler pushed the envelopes of key signature, dissonance, tempo and theory in his Ninth, leading the way toward an extended tonality variously embraced by composers as disparate as Alexander Scriabin and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Such stuff is supremely difficult to conduct and exhausting to play, but the BSO overcame most of the formidable musical challenges before it. Instrumental choirs were at odds occasionally in the early measures of the lengthy first movement, but things settled down soon thereafter. Miss Alsop’s intelligent pacing and uncanny rhythmic sense held this unwieldy piece together, particularly in its wildly gyrating central movements.

First-chair solos were outstanding, and there were no noticeable flubs in the composer’s wickedly difficult horn passages. Perhaps most impressive was the string ensemble’s superb reading of the cathartic yet largely peaceful finale. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard them play better.

There’s no doubt that the BSO is experiencing a genuine revival under Miss Alsop. Here’s hoping the ensemble’s audience will continue to appreciate this level of imagination and effort even in these troubled economic times.

★★★

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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