Runnicles, ASO put vitality into monumental, mournful Mahler work

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra had played nearly an hour of emotionally rending, personal music before the string section issued a startling, mournful cry. The guttural, aggressive exclamation marked the opening of the final movement to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.

That sprawling, 90-minute work was the only piece the ASO performed Thursday at Symphony Hall under the baton of principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles. The fourth movement is directly focused on dying. It’s a fitting end to a monumental work some say is preoccupied with the subject.

In this third guest appearance with the ASO this season, Runnicles brings significant experience conducting Mahler’s works. In the past year, he has conducted three of the composer’s symphonies, including Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No. 10, for orchestras around the world. This is his first appearance with the ASO since January’s performance of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” a massive undertaking in itself. Mahler symphonies are, of course, a regular occurrence on ASO programs. For the season opener, way back in September, the orchestra united with the chorus under the baton of music director Robert Spano for a thrilling, rejuvenating performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2.

The great conductor and scholar Leonard Bernstein once said Mahler’s penultimate symphony is all about death and saying goodbye to worldly possessions. While the work concerns literal death, he also called this work, which is a last shout of Romanticism before the 20th century, a farewell to tonality. To Runnicles, though, the composition seems a bright, lively piece of music. In the four-movement work, death does not lurk around every corner. Instead of foreboding warnings with each note, the musicians on Thursday imbued their playing with vitality.

Through the entire piece, Runnicles emphasized the bright, shimmering quality of the music. In the first three movements, the musicians played with extreme precision, maintaining unwavering control and tonal clarity through vast dynamic swings and changes in mood and tempo. Across these movements, they attacked and plunged into the dense polyphony with tenacity. The piece requires a large orchestra, and forte passages thus achieve a magnificently loud result. These ensemble passages are given even more power because for much of the work the symphony finds itself playing in smaller, more intimate groups. This is especially pronounced in the second movement, which began with a courtly, spirited violin melody and featured beautifully blended turns by the woodwinds.

In the final movement, the pleading strings that begin it quickly turned to a gauzy, unearthly mist of sound, setting the stage for the final bars of the symphony, 20 minutes later. In these final measures of the work, death finally appears. Silence pervades these last few minutes as the orchestra seems to be taking its final breaths. But even as death finally appeared, the movement, like much of the work under Runnicles, sounded like an uplifting and inspiring celebration of life.

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