Ann Arbor Symphony delivers a riveting, powerful Mahler 'Tragic' Symphony
The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra’s season finale at the Michigan Theater Saturday evening began with announcements of good things to come for the orchestra and its maestro, Music Director Arie Lipsky. You can read all about it in the sidebar accompanying this review.
But there were good things ahead in the 85 minutes that followed these announcements. Or rather, one good thing: the massive Mahler “Tragic” Symphony, No. 6 in A Minor.
This extraordinary music is an exhausting and exhilarating journey for orchestra, conductor and audience, an endurance test physically and emotionally. And on this occasion, the orchestra, brass and woodwind rich, did far more than endure. Under Lipsky’s baton and with new faces in some principal chairs (including the former concertmaster, Stephen Shipps, substituting brilliantly for Aaron Berofsky), the orchestra delivered a riveting performance of this dramatic, intense, complicated work.
It was hardly surprising that at the end Lipsky singled out a huge roster of players, from every section, for extra applause before having the whole orchestra rise for a final bow. The brass and woodwinds were remarkable, and so were the strings and percussion, for that matter.
Mahler’s subject in the Sixth is nothing less than a struggle (his struggle, and by extension, ours) with fate. Anticipation of its blows - which finally fall in the last movement - permeates the symphony from its first ominous marching moments.
Lipsky took time, as he has done in previous performances, to highlight some of the symphony’s key elements, with the orchestra playing illustrative excerpts before the full performance. It’s a great idea, a boon to the listener keen on following the score. In this case, it was an extra boon since the program and program notes listed and described the two inner movements in the order Mahler first ordained but later reversed - a reversal Lipsky honored in this performance. Still, the playing spoke so clearly that even without Lipsky’s explanations, I’d wager Mahler’s message would have come across.
In the first movement, the orchestra conveyed, from the very start, the sense of dark forces on the move, advancing in Mahler’s inexorable march. But with the second theme, the “Alma” theme that describes his wife, the troops disperse, and it’s the sweetness of what is threatened that takes center stage. But as the playing made clear, if we had storm clouds to start, the sunny lining is merely the clouds inverted. There’s irony aplenty in the writing, deftly transmitted in the playing: those clouds haven’t really disappeared at all; behind benevolence lurks something sinister.
And then comes that Andante moderato, tender, glowing, played here with such warm, rosy sound by winds, brass and strings that if the sound were a peach you could feel the fuzz on the skin.
In the darkish Scherzo that follows, the playing was most notable for its colors. Alma Mahler said that her husband was translating the “unrhythmic games” of the two Mahler children; the orchestra got the sense of play - and the mercurial “Where the Wild Things Are” sonic atmosphere.
No matter that the last movement ends in defeat: its building was a triumph for the orchestra. The first blow of fate - delivered with a long-handed wooden mallet so gargantuan it could fell a bear, let alone a man - landed with a sickening dull thud amidst a crisis of crescendo; and yet, there is recovery - and another crescendo and another thud. There was such poise in the playing: you heard time ticking in the drum, and you heard time slowing, hope dimming, something snapping - will to go on? - at the point when you might have had the third blow but don’t, and then, life ebbing as all the big sound evaporated before the orchestra sounded one last, somber, devastating pizzicato note. What a way to end a symphony. What a way to end a season.