MTT, New World deliver a shattering Mahler Sixth

By David Fleshler

Michael Tilson Thomas led the New World Symphony Saturday night in Mahler's Symphony No. 6.

Few concerts in South Florida this year have been as highly anticipated as this weekend’s performances of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony.

Tilson Thomas, who won a 2003 Grammy award for his recording of the work with the San Francisco Symphony, ranks among the world’s greatest living interpreters of Mahler. The Saturday performance has been sold out for weeks. Thirteen of the orchestra’s alumnae returned to participate, including current members of the orchestras of Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Mahler’s symphonies are tortuously difficult works, scored for large forces and bristling with exposed solos for winds and brass. Under Tilson Thomas’ baton, the combined forces played magnificently, delivering an almost flawless performance. When it was over, the normally energetic conductor looked exhausted, obviously satisfied with the performance of the orchestra but worn out by the effort.

The Sixth Symphony, titled “the Tragic” by Mahler, does not make for a sunny evening at the concert hall. Less popular than most of the the composer’s other symphonies, the Sixth has the most chilling finale of any symphony in the regular repertoire.

Tilson Thomas’ approach was neither excessively monumental nor overly emotional. The opening march was brisk and straightforward, with the conductor electing only later to make it more grim and hard-driven. In the Scherzo he found a sardonic humor that escapes many conductors, with little passages in the woodwinds and horns that show whiffs of the Eastern European side of Mahler’s musical personality.

Tilson Thomas split the violins left and right, European style. The arrangement was particularly effective in the warmth of the theme that opens the slow movement, providing relief from the pounding dramatics around it; the sudden pianissimos and flashes of dissonance created a contrasting tension within the Adagio’s essentially lyric character.

The first violin passage that opens the last movement was intense and piercing, ascending with absolute accuracy to the instruments’ upper register. The brass were impressive throughout, the nine horns playing in assured, robust manner, and the trombones and tuba forming a dark resonant choir. Tilson Thomas made the orchestra a remarkably weighted instrument, only rarely allowing it to play at full volume in the final movement, so that when it did erupt, the impact was tremendous. When the apparently triumphant movement suddenly darkens, with a huge thump from the percussion, the shock was so great several people in the audience jumped in their seats.

The last chord of the symphony, a sudden, bone-chilling A minor triad, was not the shockingly abrupt, fortissimo blow of other interpretations in part due to Tilson Thomas following Mahler’s ultimate decision to delete the third and final hammer blow. That made for a coda no less dramatic but more of a piece with the rest of the symphony, suited to the conductor’s organic and highly layered interpretation.

Last season Tilson Thomas led a memorable performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall, which provided room for the sound to bloom and expand. The orchestra’s new hall, New World Center, proved a more mixed venue for Mahler’s richly colored symphonic writing — at times sounding too small for the forces on stage, in which inner voices, woodwinds particularly, got swamped.

There was one extramusical glitch to the evening. The concert had been scheduled for 7:30 p.m., but the orchestra decided, without any explanation to the public, to change the time to 8 p.m. That left many audience members grumbling in irritation in the cramped upstairs and downstairs lobbies, which have very few places to sit.

Howard Herring, the orchestra’s executive director, said in an interview that the change was made to accommodate the live broadcast of the concert on a giant screen facing the park outside, where it wouldn’t have been dark enough for the broadcast until 8 p.m.

The program will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday. nws.edu; 305-673-3331

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One Response to “MTT, New World deliver a shattering Mahler Sixth”

  1. Posted May 01, 2011 at 3:54 pm by Dave R.

    A dead-on review of a memorable concert,one of the most remarkable of my life (and certainly the most spectacular I’ve ever seen in South Florida). The standing ovation at the end, though long, was somewhat subdued because I think we all were so exhausted by the performance. It’s truly amazing that this orchestra could play so flawlessly while at the same time conveying the enormous emotion of this piece. I’ve heard the 6th numerous time, but not until Saturday night did the full meaning of it become clearer to me.

    I wish the New World could record the 6th with just this group of players.

    By the way, subscribers knew about the time change because they were alerted by mail several weeks earlier.

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Sun May 1, 2011
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