Chicago Classical Review » » Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra scale tragic heights of Mahler’s Ninth

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Carlos Kalmar conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 on Friday night at the Harris Theatre. Photo: Norman Timonera

The last weekend in July is invariably an artistically fortuitous time for the Grant Park Music Festival, audience and musician alike. What might be a downside – Lollapalooza chasing the orchestra indoors and underground to the subterranean confines of the Harris Theater – is instead a boon, allowing audiences to appreciate the excellent musicians of the Grant Park Orchestra even more without the electronic intermediary of amplification.

Carlos Kalmar returned to the podium on Friday night in his first festival appearance since being sidelined by a positive Covid test on June 22 and having to withdraw from three programs he was due to manage. Fortunately, the festival’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor was back healthy and energetic, conducting the evening’s unique work, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, with characteristic vigor and intensity.

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is outwardly classical, cast in four movements. Yet Mahler shatters traditional structure in this final completed work: two massive slow movements frame a rustic Landler and a restless scherzo, the whole edifice expanded to epic proportions.

Written a year before his death at the age of 50, the Ninth is Mahler’s greatest achievement, an epic death-haunted journey that reflects the composer’s unstable psychological state amid premonitions of his impending death. The feeling that the center does not hold and a departure from the arduous pain of earthly existence permeate the score. The first two notes of the opening motif that dominates the first movement almost seem to say “Leb wohl” (goodbye).

The Ninth is also a work of its time and place, with the grim, gloomy pessimism of fin-de-siècle Vienna reflected in Mahler’s score as palpably as in Egon Schiele’s distorted landscapes and dark obsessions and fixations on death from the stories of Arthur Schnitzler.

Kalmar conducted an inspired Mahler Ninth on the same stage 13 years ago, in the work’s late debut at the festival. Knowing that this would likely be the conductor’s last performance of this work with the Grant Park Orchestra, before he leaves after the 2024 season, gave an added sense of occasion.

Still, as was the case last time out, the performance took a while to gel. In the opening Andante Comodo, the playing was largely polished and responsive with well-judged tempos. Yet the first movement often felt like a work in progress – restrained in dynamics and expression, and somewhat superficial as if waiting for one or two more repetitions to work out finer details. Kalmar guided the music with ease and the climaxes were towering, but too many moments of existential dread felt understated and slipped. Towards the end of the movement, the performance started to find its place with a game of greater power and grip.

It was strangely reassuring to see that this dark score can still confuse people, as evidenced by several walkouts after the end of the long first movement. You might have expected On the beautiful blue Danube?

The inner movements were exemplary, the music coming alive as the performance gathered focus and intensity. Kalmar took the second movement at a brisk pace, imbuing Landler’s rhythms with a playful, open air; the antique, frenetic middle section provided a biting contrast.

The Rondo-Burlesque provided the right galloping and subversive irony. The woodwinds were superb here, and Kalmar elided the schmaltz in the lyrical mid-section, rounding out the movement in a manic burst of frenzied desperation.

Principal horn Jonathan Boen (centre) with section colleagues during the performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 on Friday evening. Photo: Norman Timonera

The performance soared creditably to Mahler’s epic finale. Kalmar took the move at a slightly faster pace than usual, which sharpened the focus on the unfolding tragedy. From the initial declaration of the main theme, Kalmar and his colleagues unerringly conveyed the music’s sense of letting go and farewell essence. The conductor maintained a tense tension throughout the nearly half-hour movement, and the iteration of the main theme rang out with increasing power and sonic impact. As the music descended into a hushed farewell, the coda’s fragmented phrases—rendered with beautiful, barely audible playing by concertmaster Jeremy Black and his string colleagues—gave a ray of solace as the music slowly ebbed and flowed. inexorably towards silence.

Fortunately, the intermittent crying of a baby in the house did not spoil the hushed atmosphere of these last notes. Who brings a baby to an indoor concert of Mahler’s Ninth? And why was it even allowed?

There were a few intonation gaps and overall passing slips along the 85-minute journey. But for the most part, the members of the Grant Park Orchestra performed quite gloriously under Kalmar’s watchful guidance, from the howling piccolo to the towering bass foundation. Concertmaster Black, flautist Mary Stolper, harpist Eleanor Kirk and, in particular, solo horn Jonathan Boen who was terrific in his countless solos – bugle, full-bodied, nostalgic and eloquent as needed.

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Carlos Kalmar’s inevitable spoken introductions bother me less than they do some, though his populist MC approach can sometimes come across as simplistic and (unintentionally) condescending to musically sophisticated audiences. Such was the case on Friday night when he summed up Mahler’s vast and complex work by saying, “It doesn’t end so well.

It’s a terribly mundane and reductionist take on a multi-layered masterpiece with a huge range of expression and emotion. And while darkness and a sense of the last things tend to dominate, often the best performances of the Ninth find some solace amid the tragedy of the final movement—how this performance was made.

Sometimes it’s best to let the music speak for itself.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 will be repeated Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Harris Theater. gpmf.org

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