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Not only were most of Gustav Mahler's compositions immense both in length and in size of forces needed, but also in the range and scope of human emotions he tried to express through music. Always obsessed with death, by the time he wrote his Ninth Symphony in New York he knew he had little time left. In this mammoth work he tried to synthesize the essence of his stormy life experiences and bid farewell to life.
The Ninth Symphony is not an easy work to play or to listen to. Its musical complexity and unrelenting emotional tension can be overwhelming and even off-putting. Its dynamic range swings between and ear-shattering and barely audible, and the performers and listeners have to follow this constantly changing intricate musical mood swings without losing sight of the overall design and structure. As a conductor, you either immerse yourself in the music to the exclusion of everything else, every other thought, or you don't dare touch it. And on Friday's concert of the NCSO in Meymandi Hall, Gerhardt Zimmermann did the former.
It was a stunning performance. From the soft syncopated three-note rhythm of the opening to the barely audible pppp marked "ersterbend" (dying away) of the conclusion, conductor and orchestra teamed up to wring every ounce of emotion from this 90-minute work. Zimmermann's interpretation brought out the significance of the descending major seconds that epitomize the melancholy of the first movement and which Mahler redefines in the following Ländler of the second movement and tragically recalls in the finale. True, there were a few minor train wrecks, especially in the frenetic Rondo-Burleske third movement with its whirlwind pace and intricate counterpoint, but these in no way detracted from an outstanding accomplishment.
The performance also illustrated the superiority of the acoustics of Meymandi hall.
The Symphony would never have come off properly in Memorial Auditorium. In spite of the massive forces employed, the sound of the individual instruments came through cleanly and with excellent definition. In addition, Mahler used the orchestral instruments to the limit of their ranges, and only in Meymandi can the lower notes of the basses, trombones and tuba be heard and felt.
Special kudos go to flutist Anne Whaley Laney, whose first movement solos were clean and ethereal. The winds as a whole should be hailed for their handling of the section of the final movement in which they seamlessly weave together and share an expansive solo melody.
Members of the audience enjoyed twelfth grader James Dargan's playing of several movements from Bach's solo violin Partitas, an appropriately serious appetizer for the evening's main fare. We have noticed with each of these student pre-concert performances, more and more people gather to listen to and admire these talented young musicians.