Mahler's Third Symphony is a profound and magnificent meditation that "mirrors the whole world."
On Friday night, after conducting the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for 75 minutes, Edo de Waart set down his baton. Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony–the only piece on de Waart’s final program as the MSO’s music director–was not yet over. The final movement remained, described in the score as “Langsam—Ruhevoll—Empfunden” (“Slowly—Calmly—Deeply felt”). As he brought the MSO strings gently into the opening chord, he reached out with both hands, as if to shape the sound like clay.
De Waart isn’t a showy conductor, and a lesser musician would have made these moments more about the performance than the music. But here you could see the feeling well as hear it—the gestures and the phrases in perfect emotional union.
After several minutes, de Waart took up the baton again. But the music didn’t suffer. The searching tranquility of the music grew in intensity as the sound broadened across the ensemble: first Todd Levy’s plaintive clarinet, then Sonora Slocum’s flute and Katherine Young Steele’s oboe, the chorus of horns and Frank Almond’s solo violin. And eventually, the ensemble building to a gorgeous epiphany.
Always an architectural interpreter, de Waart made this last movement count by carefully building what came before it. Here, the programmatic titles for each movement are included in the program and projected above the stage during the concert (“What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me,” “What the Angels Tell Me”), even though Mahler abandoned these titles after the symphony was completed. Even if you don’t pay attention to the description, the world of Mahler’s imagination is clearly rendered—bird song, village bands, church bells.
It’s all evoked beautifully through the MSO’s playing. But de Waart also builds Mahler’s symphony with careful attention to its structure. After the first movement’s seismic horn fanfare, he lets the echo subside and slows the pace and sound to a glacial whisper, the almost inaudible heartbeat of a bass drum carrying the music slowly forward. As with the final movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (performed last week), the music registers as discreet ideas that eventually knit together and gain momentum. As the first movement goes on, we get a taste for life above the surface—a sweet violin melody and a cheeky clarinet riff—before Megumi Kanda’s stately trombone, sounding like the musings of a mountain king, brings us to ground again.
The whirlwind tour continues through the next movements: tender evocations of nature and life’s pleasures–children’s voices, pastoral life–mixed with episodes of sonorous existential dread. It begins to carry more weight in the fourth movement, with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke beautifully asking (in Nietzsche’s words) “What does the deep midnight say?” Then in the next movement, we’re among children (The Milwaukee Children’s Choir) and idyllic village life.
Whatever story or program you hear in the music (Schoenberg heard the “ruthless truth” of one man’s titanic life struggle rather than Mahler’s “mirror of the whole world”), all roads lead to that impassioned final movement. As de Waart said in a talkback after the concert, he’s performed this symphony a couple dozen times (lately, it’s his “go-to” orchestra farewell piece), but in this performance, it seemed as if he and the orchestra were encountering it for the first time. After the expansive world evoked in the symphony’s first 75 minutes, the final movement finds composer, musicians, and conductor digging in to think about what it all means. There are moments of fierce contemplation, crushing doubt, and finally resounding affirmation. I can’t think of a better way for a conductor to depart than with this reverberant “Yes,” to the power of great music.
The concert will be offered again Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in the Marcus Center’s Uihlein Hall.