Nelsons, BSO embrace Mahler’s epic world in the Third Symphony

January 19, 2018 at 12:10 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Andris Nelsons will increase his Tanglewood Festival commitment to ten weeks next summer.

Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 Thursday night at Symphony Hall.

One day in 1907, Gustav Mahler took a walk with Jean Sibelius. Both composers were already established as symphonists, yet their musical philosophy could not be more different from the other. Sibelius believed in taut control of his form and material, each of his movements a precisely crafted, crystalline shape. But Mahler thought differently. “A symphony must be like a world,” he told his Finnish companion, “it should embrace everything.”

Indeed, Mahler’s symphonies are exemplars of that idea. His music traverses a wide range of emotions and idioms, with songs, marches, and fanfares all finding a place within his symphonic canvasses.

Many of his works have been in the repertoire since they were premiered. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has made a point of programming many of them in concerts nearly every season since 1913. Audiences were even treated to a double dose of Mahler this past fall when Andris Nelsons offered two different, thoughtfully varied takes on the Symphony No. 1.

Thursday night at Symphony Hall, the Latvian conductor delivered a rare treat with a profound rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.

Cast in six movements and spanning over one hundred minutes in length, the symphony stands as one of the longest works in the repertoire. But in its life-affirming lines, which recall the grandeur of nature and springtime, this work stands out as one of Mahler’s finest achievements.

Like a number of his other symphonies, the work projects a broadly spiritual message. Its fourth movement sets a portion of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra—ironically the atheist manifesto of its day—which tells of deep, abiding joy. Similarly, the fifth movement, based on a song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, speaks of eternal heavenly tranquility. In these movements, Nelsons reading was finely attuned to the work’s serene religious overtones.

Mahler’s score is dotted with solo passages for winds and strings, which spotlighted several of the BSO’s principal players. In the first movement, Malcolm Lowe’s bright-toned violin passages brought moments of sunshine and lilt. Toby Oft’s trombone solo had a boldly projected, Wagnerian, power. James Sommerville’s horn lines in the finale seemed to sound out from a distance, and Thomas Rolfs’ posthorn solo, which makes up the bulk of the third movement, had the soft lyricism of a Swiss air. With each, Nelsons wove an accompaniment of chamber-like intimacy.

As is often the case with Nelsons’ performances of large-scale works, details were aplenty, but the conductor led with a firm sense of the piece’s architecture. The first movement was a journey from darkness to light. Its opening statements had the same biting intensity that Shostakovich would later mine in his own symphonies, and the burbling second theme flowered beautifully in the winds and strings. The march had a touch of sarcasm before swelling to boisterous heights. 

The second movement’s bucolic minuet and the third movement Scherzo had live-wire energy as Nelsons conjured playing of direction and momentum.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, singing with the score, delivered a darkly lyrical “O Mensch,” her phrases resonating with hymn-like grace. The women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the children’s chorus, prepared by James Burton, sang with bell-toned radiance and precise diction in “Es sungen drei Engel einen süßen Gesang,” which makes up the fifth movement.

Most affecting was the final Adagio. The strings played the opening lines with plush sound, and later in the movement the brass added layers of soft, haunting chords. Wind phrases seemed to glow with a prayerful light before the powerful ending brought the symphony to a bold conclusion. Mahler’s symphonic worlds, when performed this beautifully, have the power to linger in the memory.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall.; 888-266-1200


Posted in Performances

8 Responses to “Nelsons, BSO embrace Mahler’s epic world in the Third Symphony”

  1. Posted Jan 19, 2018 at 5:13 pm by jim

    I think it’s worth taking note of the fact that the children’s chorus used in this performance was not one of the established children’s choruses in the area. Rather it was a chorus created specifically for this performance. According to the program book, nearly 200 children in grades 5 – 9 from the Boston area auditioned this past fall with 65 selected to take part. The choir met for the first time this month to prepare for these performances with choir director James Burton.

  2. Posted Jan 20, 2018 at 10:34 am by noochinator

    I attended the Friday afternoon performance on Jan. 19, 2018. The performance was musically fine, but there were several logistical issues: the performance started at 1:40 rather than 1:30, with no explanation given for the delay; and the soloist and chorus were not in place at the beginning of the performance: the chorus was brought in between the second and third movements, and the soloist entered between the third and fourth movements. For myself, these procedures detracted from the artistic power of the performance.

    I suspect the reason for the disorganization may be the BSO’s determination to enter the restaurant business — pre-concert meals are now offered. There are not enough eateries in the area of Symphony Hall? The BSO should stick to its mission of providing great music in a world-class manner, and leave the feedbagging to others.

  3. Posted Jan 20, 2018 at 10:12 pm by jim

    Having also attended the Friday afternoon performance I feel that I have to reply to noochinator’s dyspeptic comments.

    This is at least the 4th live performance I have attended of the Mahler 3rd and there was nothing unusual in the “organization” of the concert. It would be pointless to have the chorus (particularly when a children’s chorus is involved) and soloist stuck out on the stage doing nothing for an hour. Mahler calls for a break between the first and 2nd movements. Many performance place an intermission there. I know the Ozawa performance at Tanglewood in the 80’s and the Levine performance both had intermissions. The other performances I’ve attended where Abbado with the BSO and Gunther Schuller at the NEC and I can’t remember if they had intermissions or not.

    I find the intermission intrusive and I think this performance struck a good compromise and it was an excellent opportunity to bring in the chorus. As for the later entrance of Ms. Graham – if that was enough to detract from the performance for you than you either weren’t very into it in the first place or you are far too sensitive to be attending concerts of any kind and should stay home and listen to your radio.

    And there is nothing whatsoever unusual about a concert not starting on time – particularly when there is only one piece of music on the program and the first movement runs over half an hour in which no one can be seated.

    How you came to the conclusion that any of this had anything whatsoever to do with the pre-concert luncheon and lecture is beyond me. How in the world would the pre-concert luncheon have prevented the chorus from being on stage at the beginning of the concert if that’s what they wanted?

    This was a wonderful performance and it’s a shame that anyone who had the privilege of attending should have been unable to appreciate it because of such pettiness.

  4. Posted Jan 21, 2018 at 8:11 am by nimitta

    noochinator: “…there were several logistical issues…”

    No, friend, there weren’t, and your suspicions are unfounded.

    BSO performances almost always begin 7-8 minutes after the listed starting time. This practice evolved from the recognition that once the music begins, there may only be limited opportunities to seat latecomers. When a symphony audience numbers 2500, dozens of latecomers are to be expected for every performance. This is coupled with the artistic desideratum to minimize the delay when those latecomers are seated: the fewer there are, the shorter the gap. In my experience, when a program features a single work with no intermission, such as the Mahler 3rd Symphony, it typically commences 9-10 minutes after the listed starting time, allowing a little bit extra for everyone to get settled.

    As for “feedbagging”: the orchestra has offered pre-concert meals for years, noochinator. The BSO knows how to do this efficiently, and many patrons enjoy and depend on them. In no way do the meals affect performance starting time.

    Now, about the Mahler 3rd: I suspect it was your first encounter with this piece, which is unique in the symphonic literature. Its six movements make it an unusually lengthy work – the 1st mvt alone takes 30-33 minutes, which is longer than an entire Mozart symphony! Furthermore, it features a soloist and two choruses, but they only sing in mvts 4 & 5. I doubt any conductor, even Mahler himself, has ever asked the singers to sit on stage for the hour or more that mvts 1-3 require – especially a large chorus of children! So, the conductor has two choices: have an intermission after the 3rd mvt, which breaks up the marvelous continuity of the piece; or pause onstage for a few minutes as the singers come onstage. Although some music directors – James Levine, for example – choose the former, I far prefer the latter, as does Andris Nelsons and, I think, a majority of the musicians and audience.

    By comparison, the time it took for the choruses to enter this weekend was actually shorter than the turnaround on other occasions where the orchestra has programmed an overture followed by a piano concerto, in which the players must migrate to the sidelines, seats must be moved aside, the piano rolled out and set up, and seats repositioned. Most of us accept this kind of pause, because it’s preferable to having the piano sit out on stage for the first piece, taking up space and altering the sonics. Besides, the BSO stage managers are the best in the business, and proceed with amazing efficiency – they rival the pit crews at the Indy 500.

    Make no mistake: the BSO is a well-oiled machine, as superbly organized and run as any artistic enterprise I’ve ever seen.

  5. Posted Jan 21, 2018 at 9:08 am by Raymond

    The late start accommodates latecomers. And while this American custom annoys those of who arrive on time, we all understand it’s the custom. An even later start when the opening movement runs more than a half hour with no opportunity to seat latecomers is not surprising.

    Mahler called for a pause after the first movement. There are different ways to accomplish this, even an intermission. A pause for the entrance of the chorus works as well.

    I don’t know when the soloist entered, but her entrance should be timed so as not to invite applause. Otherwise it doesn’t matter.

  6. Posted Jan 21, 2018 at 2:48 pm by John Shriver

    The Saturday performance started at 8:10. I suspect that the later than usual start was a consideration to patrons who might arrive late, and would have had to wait 34 minutes to be seated if they arrived after the start of the first movement. Also, given no intermission, starting late still had the concert ending well before 10:00pm.

    Mahler’s autograph score calls for a long break after the first movement, so seating the choir then (and latecomers) is quite appropriate. That choice was probably a consideration for the young performers in the youth chorus. Better not to have them fidgeting.

    Nelsons sitting on the soloist’s chair during after the first movement reminded me of Ben Zander taking a seat for four minutes after the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Boston Philharmonic at Symphony hall nigh 25 years ago. The printed score calls for a long break there, rarely taken. But Zander likes to obey the score.

  7. Posted Jan 28, 2018 at 7:19 am by noochinator

    @jim, you’re right, I probably “should stay home and listen to [my] radio” (WCRB, now that WGBH stands for “Wanton Gabbing By-the Hour”). I admit that I did enjoy more my pre-concert homework to attending the performance itself — I was esp. taken by the Abbado-helmed performance available at Amazon Prime Video, in which all the performers are on stage from the get-go. I still think this is the best way to go — I wouldn’t want an airplane I was riding on to land 30 minutes later solely to pick up the co-pilot or some flight attendants (although this may be current airline practice, I dunno.)

    I didn’t know that BSO perf’s routinely begin late. I’ll have to start arriving late myself: srart at three minutes late, then next time four, etc., until I end up stuck in the lobby during the ‘Fingal’s Cave’ Ovt. I knew rock concerts started late — I left a Robin Trower gig at Berklee when he still hadn’t come out 40 minutes after the scheduled starting time — but I thought the classical music world was a cut above. I think it’s a good idea to start precisely on time; latecomers might then decide to leave, which would give the rest of us more legroom.

    Thanks so much to everyone for informing me of the varying practices in performing Mahler 3, fascinating stuff!

  8. Posted Jan 29, 2018 at 5:40 am by noochinator

    Thank you to everyone for explaining the different performance practices observed with Mahler 3, fascinating stuff!

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