They say that when the great conductor and composer Gustav Mahler saw Niagara Falls for the first time, he exclaimed, “Ah, fortissimo at last!” When it came to appreciating quantity, Mahler had the highest standards. How many other composers have left us symphonies long and complex enough to fill an entire orchestral program with just a single symphony?
In Jahja Ling’s continuing, diligent effort to leave sterling memories of his tenure as San Diego Symphony Music Director, Ling conducted Mahler’s Sixth Symphony on Friday (April 29) at Copley Symphony Hall. As the evening’s sole musical offering, it proved quite sufficient to stand alone, especially in Ling’s expansive interpretation.
Mahler claimed that for him, writing a symphony was constructing a world, and Ling clearly found the turbulent world of the Mahler Sixth Symphony—sometimes called “the Tragic”—to his liking. He insisted on an aggressive, relentless take on the first movement’s opening march, for example, and maintained that dark ebullience throughout the movement.
From the outset, the orchestra’s solid, cohesive sound not only served the work well, but also reminded the regular followers of the San Diego Symphony how far Ling has brought this orchestra. In comparison to the orchestra’s less than completely satisfying accounts of the Mahler Fifth in 2012 and the Mahler Seventh in 2014—equally massive orchestral canvases—their Sixth Symphony boasted more unified string sections that projected both strength and warmth; a brass choir with brilliance and stamina; a horn section of uncommon sonic beauty and accuracy, and woodwinds with crack velocity as well as tonal allure.
Ling has always exhibited a zeal for precision and detail, but the orchestra has now attained a level where they are more equipped to respond to his demands with the polish and security that produces a rewarding account of these substantial works.
The Scherzo, presented here as the second movement (this ordering was Mahler’s first choice), begins with a strangely dark and asymmetrical procession of sorts that gives way to lighter, simpler themes exchanged between the oboe and first violins. For these contrasts, Ling encouraged a sweeter, more welcoming disposition from his players, which they offered with alacrity. Even greater respite arrived in the Andante moderato, the intimation of sylvan glades depicted by cowbells and the woodwinds’ gentle undulations that provided a dulcet backdrop for a resplendent, arching solo from Principal Horn Benjamin Jaber.
Mahler’s Finale returns to the angst and turbulence of his opening movement, suggesting that in the composer’s world, bucolic comfort provided only temporary balm. When called for, Ling built up shuddering fortes, undergirded by the muscular, burnished low brass and topped off with gleaming peals from the expanded trumpet section. In the outer movements, Principal Trumpet Micah Wilkinson’s blazing solos soared over the orchestra with that sonic combination of bright edge and beauty that Mahler requires.
Other notable contributions to this splendid account of the Sixth included deft solos by Concertmaster Jeff Thayer, delicate but beautifully shaped passages from the celesta by Mary Barranger, and vibrant solo work by the flutes led by Principal Flute Rose Lombardo.