Review: ASO exquisite in uneven Mahler 10th

Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles (shown during a 2016 performance) was back Thursday night to lead the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s 10th Symphony. CONTRIBUTED BY JEFF ROFFMAN

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Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles (shown during a 2016 performance) was back Thursday night to lead the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s 10th Symphony. CONTRIBUTED BY JEFF ROFFMAN

Mahler’s 10th Symphony begins with a pleading viola murmur in front of a silent, reflective orchestra. This melodic line of hushed intervallic leaps bled into a gossamer, shimmering ensemble chord that permeated every corner of Symphony Hall Thursday night for the first time in more than three decades.

Louis Lane served as the conductor the last time the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra brought Mahler's complete final symphony, which was significantly unfinished at the time of his death, to Symphony Hall in September 1985. Back then, the home of the ASO was still shiny and new — just 17 years old — and many current members of the orchestra were still learning the fingering patterns on their instruments.

Mahler’s symphony is an early 20th-century mashup, but it’s far from the modern-day fusible of two or more pop songs that were likely never meant to be jammed together. Mahler’s composition is a full imagining — in someone else’s approximation of Mahler’s musical voice — of initial sketches and drafts. Thursday night, the ASO presented Mahler’s symphony as conceived by musicologist Deryck Cooke. This “performing version” is widely played today, and while other full completions have been played and recorded, Cooke’s is the clear preference.

Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles most recently led a performance of the Cooke Mahler a little more than six months ago with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center (the work also had not been heard from that orchestra in decades) and previously presented this version with the BBC Scotland Symphony Orchestra in 2015. Of course, Mahler symphonies are nothing new for the ASO. In the past five years, the ASO has now programmed seven of the symphonies, with Runnicles most recently leading the ensemble thorough Mahler's Ninth Symphony in April 2016.

The first movement of Mahler’s 10th belongs to the strings, and the writing is perfectly tailored for the ASO. At times, searing string squalls cut through a turbulent ensemble. Deep, agonizing emotion fuels this 25-minute first movement, the piece of music most fleshed out by Mahler before he died. It’s easy to hear why the movement has been programmed by the ASO and others as a standalone piece.

In the 50 minutes between the end of the first movement and the closing moments of the composition, wonderful sparks of music emerge. The final minutes — a frightened cry from the strings, a robust response from the horns — are magical. While sublime music dots the rest of the score, much of the composition feels disconnected from the entrancing first movement.

As with any unfinished symphony, controversy surrounds Mahler’s 10th. Critic William Youngren once explained that for many conductors, Mahler’s reconstituted symphony is shunned. Playing it would be to “do his memory an injustice and so to commit an immoral act,” he wrote in The Atlantic. How can anyone know how Mahler would have finished the piece? The same thing, of course, can be said for Mozart’s “Requiem,” which was unfinished at his death and has been performed often, and to great success, by the ASO and Chorus. But the Mahler is out there, and hearing it is musicologically instructive — even with ersatz-Mahler additions. Why wait 33 years?


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

8 p.m. Nov. 1. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Nov. 3. $19-$69. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000,

8 p.m. Nov 2. $20-$85. University of Georgia Performing Arts Center, 230 River Road, Athens.

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