Not 50 years ago, most if not all of Gustav Mahler’s highly original symphonies were considered to be Romanticism’s last gasps of the 20th century. Complex, gigantic, highly emotional and often eccentric, they were considered by many critics to be too over-the-top for serious consideration. Today, however, thanks initially to the tireless evangelism of the late conductors Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein, each performance of a Mahler symphony is a major event, something to be debated and talked about long after the last note has died.
Mahler’s Third Symphony, his longest in terms of duration — running more than 1 hours depending on the pace taken by the conductor — is not quite as popular as the “Resurrection” Symphony that preceded it. It’s a considerable musical and sonic challenge nonetheless, requiring huge orchestral forces in addition to women’s and children’s choirs.
Generally, only the largest and most polished symphonic groups can hope to mount a credible performance. That speaks volumes about the nervy decision by the Juilliard Orchestra — an ensemble of the famed music school’s student instrumentalists — to help celebrate the institution’s centennial with a performance of the Third this past Tuesday evening in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Under the steady baton of James Conlon, and assisted by the excellent mezzo-soprano Jane Gilbert and members of the Cathedral Choral Society and the Children’s Choir from the National Cathedral Schools, the Juilliard’s young musicians gave Mahler’s daunting score a run for the money.
True, there were numerous youthful indiscretions, including a rickety posthorn solo passage in the third movement, minor tempo quibbles among some of the instrumental groupings in the massive first movement, and occasional, if brief, sour blats from the French horns. The German diction of the choral forces also could have been crisper. However, such mishaps have been known to happen to major ensembles during live performances as well.
What continued to surprise all evening was the poise and maturity of the Juilliard’s young musicians. Mahler’s Third, as maestro Conlon explained to the audience in an informative pre-symphony briefing, is the composer’s own sonic fresco of creation itself. In addition to the music, Mahler is articulating his religious, philosophical and emotional responses in his dense and colorful score.
It is the work of a mature adult intellectual, embodying all his inherent contradictions, cul-de-sacs, frailties and unanswered questions — the kind of stuff that’s not always accessible to young people, who often prefer to view the world in simpler terms.
For the most part, these Juilliard students are cut from different cloth. Not only did they thoroughly grasp what Mahler was confronting in his musical universe, but they were poised, assured and able to take it to a considerably higher level, encountering his music with wisdom and compassion.
Tuesday’s performance may not quite have been one for the ages, but it was frequently thrilling and at times quite moving indeed.
It is both encouraging and depressing to thrill to this kind of high level of musicianship — encouraging because these representatives of the next generation of classical musicians and others like them embody the future of serious music, depressing because countless musically illiterate rockers will easily out-earn them in the course of their careers.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to be unhappy when you’re pursuing something you love, and there was plenty of that Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Center. The Concert Hall was surprisingly full for a midweek performance, and both the enthusiastic audience and the Juilliard Orchestra got their money’s worth of Mahler on a frigid December night.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS