Gustav Mahler, whose Ninth Symphony was played by the Redwood Symphony at Cañada College on Saturday, is a polarizing composer whom listeners either love or hate.
I hate him.
Mahler said, “The symphony should embrace the world,” by which he meant it should embrace the kitchen sink. I find his music bloated and self-indulgent, juxtaposing contrasts without a larger unifying logic. Its intense emotions come from nothing and lead nowhere — full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (to borrow a phrase). Even Michael Tilson Thomas’ award-winning performances with the San Francisco Symphony often range, for me, from the tedious to the exasperating.
Yet there’s one ensemble that has conquered Mahler and made me enjoy it: a little community orchestra called the Redwood Symphony. Six years ago, I heard Eric Kujawsky conduct it in the Third Symphony, a scrappy performance with simple energy and commitment. It genuinely made this music go somewhere. I liked it much more than San Francisco’s version.
Saturday’s concert tackled an even tougher nut: the Ninth, the work in which Mahler expanded the ground plan of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” to twice life size. I had never heard a performance of this work that didn’t sound like 90 minutes of endless sludge. This was the Redwood’s third date with it, and they’ve also played all Mahler’s other symphonies. I knew they could succeed with the Third, and the Ninth is often considered Mahler’s greatest. I decided to let them make the case.
The orchestra and its conductor brought some unusual strengths to this project. The Redwood Symphony’s secret is that its limited capacity as a volunteer ensemble means that it doesn’t attempt to be too emotive or grandiose. This was a plain-spoken presentation that didn’t whine or slosh around, common but fatal behavior with Mahler.
Kujawsky said he considers Mahler a master of large-scale form and of tight, organic development. I find these claims ludicrous. But they are useful fictions for Kujawsky to believe, for his commitment and sincerity are expended to make his beliefs true. They don’t succeed. But the effort helps, a lot.
This performance imbued Mahler’s random climaxes with some sincerity, caused the returns of opening themes to make actual sense in context, and shaped the structure to be clear and coherent. The comic second movement was more a parody of ponderousness than the thing itself. Kujawsky’s steady tempos and the orchestra’s absence of over-emoting were vital. If 90 minutes of Maher’s overbearing personality was still a bit much, this time he was presented as honest and straightforward, and even capable of telling his story with some beauty and grace.
The result was not to make Mahler good, but to expose him clearly. Redwood revealed that what Mahler, like many equally garrulous novelists, needed was a good editor. Every time it seems that he has said more than enough and ought to be wrapping things up — each movement has at least one passage halfway through that would make a good coda — he says, “And here’s another thing!” But it’s just more of the same, often louder.
I wouldn’t have grasped that without this sludgeless version. The orchestra played gallantly. Some wobbliness and garish blatting vanished about halfway through the first movement. A continuing imbalance, with the horns and trumpets riding over the strings, at least added spice, especially in the middle movements. The slow finale gave the strings their chance to shine. The thickly contrapuntal writing was a great challenge for these players, yet they succeeded, even conveying for a moment the sweet, calm sound of Mahler’s mentor, Anton Bruckner.
So I still don’t like Mahler. But I like the Redwood Symphony a whole lot. If you’re dubious about Mahler — and even if you aren’t — you ought to hear these folks play him.