Art and Nature Combine for a Transcendent Mahler Third at Tanglewood


Tanglewood [6] – Mahler, Symphony No.3: Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano), Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Children’s Chorus / Andris Nelsons (conductor), Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, 24.8.2018. (RP)

Susan Graham (mezzo), Andris Nelsons (conductor) & BSO (c) Chris Lee

Bernstein never conducted Mahler’s Third Symphony at Tanglewood, but nonetheless this concert was part of its ongoing celebration of the centenary of his birth. For many Americans the two names are practically synonymous, as Bernstein was one of the great champions of Mahler’s music in this country. Not that the towering Austrian musician was a stranger to these shores, having conducted at both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic in the first decade of the twentieth century. His early death, changing musical tastes and two world wars, however, combined to consign his music to relative obscurity until the 1950s.

Nowadays performances of Mahler’s monumental symphonies are quasi-religious experiences with audiences exalting in the spine-tingling climaxes and transcendent finales. So it was for this performance of the Third Symphony, perhaps Mahler at his most pantheistic, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its musical director, Andris Nelsons.

Nelsons’ podium style is not as irrepressibly boisterous as that of Bernstein, vividly captured in photographs on display throughout Tanglewood, but music similarly emanates from the core of his being. His long arms reach into the orchestra and seem to pull the music from its very depths. He can likewise be a minimalist, communicating with a nod of his head or the slightest pulse of his body. Most importantly for a work like the Third Symphony, he knows how to pace a performance. The tension never flags, and the music unfolds like an incoming wave, with subtle hesitations that only add to the inevitable great crash of sound.

The BSO’s brass section is phenomenal; their combined sound unleashed at full volume is perfection. The trumpets’ tone is liquid and clean and the horns’ sound rich and burnished, while the lower brasses play with an elegance that is perhaps equaled in other of the world’s great orchestras but seldom surpassed. The principals, including hornist James Sommerville, trumpeter Thomas Rolfs and particularly trombonist Toby Oft, were awesome in this performance.

It was not only the sounds that were so captivating but the sights too. The two harpists sitting side by side at the edge of the stage performed with the grace of synchronized swimmers. Also in plain view were the percussionists, master showmen creating the sonorities that underpin Mahler’s music. Leading the orchestra was First Associate Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova, whose solo turns were mesmerizing and sense of authority impressive by any measure.

The third movement was simply magical, a perfect Tanglewood moment, when nature and art combine for an unforgettable experience. Although the late-summer cicadas had all but drowned out the muffled drum beats of the first movement, here they became part of the musical texture, creating an intense connection with nature that can never be replicated in the concert hall. The post horn solos reverberating through the cavernous shed transported me to the Austrian Alps that Mahler loved so. I listened in awe at the magnificence of it all.

Susan Graham brought her smooth, amber-hued mezzo-soprano to the ‘Midnight Song’ from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the fourth movement. In keeping with the lyrical nature of her instrument, she imbued the vocal line with a sense of mystery and calm. The singing of the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Children’s Chorus was marked by purity of tone and precision, the kids bubbling with joy as they sang their bell-like interjections. Their final bell sounds evaporated into the delicate, brilliant orchestral textures with perfect intonation.

The BSO will perform Mahler’s Third Symphony with Graham as soloist in its upcoming tour of the United Kingdom and Europe. How I envy the audience in the KKL in Lucerne, with the hall’s incomparable acoustics and magical setting on Vierwaldstättersee nestled in the Alps. Undoubtedly it will be a well-nigh perfect performance and rapturously received. I will anxiously await the reviews, but this Tanglewood experience will be hard to top. It was if all of nature was the canvas on which Nelsons and the BSO painted.

Rick Perdian

For more information on the BSO’s September 2018 tour, please click here.


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