It’s no secret that Mahler’s Third Symphony is big. As others have noted, the sprawling first movement alone is longer than almost any of Mozart’s whole symphonies. With bleachers for the chorus (the Milwaukee Children’s Chorus and the women of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus) and a greatly expanded orchestra (eight French Horns, two harps, seven percussionists, etc.), conductor Edo de Waart seemed to teeter at the edge of the stage.
It’s a huge challenge for a conductor, who must hold it all together. But listening to the Milwaukee Symphony Saturday night, I kept wondering: Must it hold together? Is there any way for the polyglot sounds and styles to seem “unified”? Particularly in the first movement, where the music moves from resounding brass choruses to wheezy village-band style woodwinds to Messiaen-like tweets and twitters to soaring string passages.
Did it “hold together”? As usual, de Waart conducted with great sensitivity and precision. He went for dynamic extremes to capture the richness of the music. You had to strain to hear the bass drum softly softly introducing the march sections (the rather cough-happy audience didn’t help). And brass fanfares resounded powerfully.
Mahler always sounds like Mahler, but this is a sort of musical disapora, capturing a wealth of worldly experience through music that didn’t need to “hold together.” A haunting and meditative lone voice (beautifully sung by mezzo Kelley O’Connor) bumped up against children’s song. An offstage trumpet and snare drum suggests a vast landscape of sound.
What contains it, I think, is the final movement—rich and searching strings that restlessly drifted over this landscape, searching for resolution. Mahler draws that tension out with a deftness that rivals Wagner’s Tristan, and de Waart was at his best here. You could see eye-contact, and even an occasional smile exchange between conductor and concertmaster Frank Almond. No excessive gestures—just beautiful control and connection. It was a fitting end to de Waart’s inaugural season, and no doubt left many eager for seasons ahead.