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S & H International Concert Review

Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra,Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California, Dec. 11 and 14, 2003 (BH)

During the devastating final movement of the Mahler Sixth, I pitied the patrons who were seated immediately behind the orchestra, overlooking a large wooden block at the back of the Los Angeles Philharmonicís percussion section. As the moment grew near for the first of the two "hammer blows of Fate," the musician grasped an ominous-looking mallet, and then like an executioner ascending the gallows, walked up two steps, hoisted the hammer over his shoulder, paused for his cue, and then smacked the box like one of those "Test Your Strength!" challenges at a county fair. I felt a bit guilty being amused by the reactions of a couple of people who were caught off guard by the detonation.

At the conclusion of the second of two performances I heard, a friend said with a smirk, "You flew across the entire continental United StatesÖto hear this!" If not the last word in uplifting good cheer -- five of us were celebrating the writerís birthday Ė Mahlerís Sixth definitely is the last word in orchestral virtuosity, and the shockwaves it leaves can be exhilarating. And there was little doubt that this was a performance led by someone who deeply believes in this work. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted and recorded this piece in the days immediately following September 11, 2001, a brave move that not only acknowledged the Sixthís cathartic power, but in a more mundane sense demonstrated that terrorists would not be allowed to affect "our regularly scheduled programming." In the furious, over-the-top result, Mahlerís dark mirror and the overwhelming misery of the day fused like a cauterized wound.

Thomasí clear-sighted phrasing, heroic stamina, and precise instructions brought out the best in the Los Angeles musicians, who sounded glorious in their spectacular new home. The symphony is scored for a mammoth orchestra -- the woodwind section alone is the size of a small chamber ensemble -- and the sheer sound of all the activity is one of the composerís greatest thrill rides.

In the sprawling opening, marked "Allegro energico," Thomasí swift start gave me goosebumps, and things only got better. With masterly balancing, he made the most of the textures that careen violently back and forth between tense marches that collide and subside with increasing desperation, and the soaring, almost kitschy-sounding arcs of broadly romantic, even sentimental melodies. This ambiguous happiness is about as optimistic as the Sixth ever gets, but just as its heroism seems to peak it is quickly battered down, as if the group were at war with itself. Throughout, Thomas seemed completely focused, never lost sight of the overall architecture, and ended the movement with a glittering, breathless coda that seemed to leave the audience stunned.

When the dust settled, the gorgeous, elegiac "Andante" seemed to materialize out of nowhere, helped by the fact that it begins in an entirely different key. Plaintive and seductive, it seemed to have a worried subtext, as if the composer were suggesting that time is running out and itís time to try another avenue: if outright bravery doesnít work, try love and compassion. This is one of the most intensely beautiful idylls in Mahlerís output, and one of my companions was wiping tears from his eyes as it drew to its gentle close.

But then the mood changed completely. Thomas has joined the ranks of conductors who place the raw "Scherzo" third, after the "Andante" rather than the other way around. With the brittle, bone-rattling "Scherzo" coming later, it seemed to make a mockery of everything, sneering not only at the opening movement and its attempt at victory, but at the intense passion of the "Andante" as well. As a result the sense of loss began to set in even sooner, and by the time the final movement began, any kind of hope or solace seemed very far away.

Surely I am not the only person who is thinking that the Walt Disney Concert Hall is revealing the Los Angeles group to be one of the countryís best orchestras. They certainly sounded like it here, as well as in the Mahler Second a few weeks earlier. From concertmaster Martin Chalifourís graceful solos, to some riveting work by oboist Marion Arthur Kuszyk, to the positively regal gleam of Donald Greenís trumpet, the musicians just played magnificently, with real fire. And itís hard not to replay images of the string section making short work of Mahlerís seemingly nonstop rivers of notes.

The final movement is a turbulent downward spiral -- a vast whirlpool -- with the ever-darkening orchestra being sucked down some cosmic drain. Despite being pressed to even more virtuosic turns (afterward several musicians mentioned the frighteningly difficult passages in the last few pages), it all feels like frantic clawing, like being buried alive. Near the end, instead of a third hammer blow we get a crash on a giant gong that seems to swallow up the orchestra, and as if briefly knocked unconscious, the group struggles upward in a final convulsive spasm, trying valiantly to regain its composure. Then, recalling the very beginning of the symphony, the opening movement march returns, surging now almost sarcastically, before the tumult subsides and dwindles down to the low brasses. Thomasí implacable control of all of this wildness was quite impressive, and kudos to the excellent Norman Pearson on tuba, playing a profound role with gentle understatement.

As the energy is finally drained out, all thatís left are the double basses, murmuring quietly, as if some dying animal were writhing on the ground. And then, just when we think we can bear no more, the last massive, brazen outburst -- a shockingly loud minor chord that Thomas launched with a deceptively tight, small gesture -- freezes our despair and says, no, despite our aching and longing, ultimately we are right back where we began.

Bruce Hodges



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