Having never heard Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 performed before, the Ann Arbor Symphony’s Saturday night performance of it was certainly an experience. At over an hour and twenty minutes long, it takes listeners on a profound musical journey of Mahler’s personal memories and experiences.
It has been hotly debated whether Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is more a lamentation of death or a “love song to life,” and this dilemma was noted at the beginning of the concert by A2SO conductor and music director Arie Lipsky. While I am certainly not an expert, the first three movements, in my opinion, seemed to be a celebration of life and the living. This does not, however, preclude death from being a present theme in these movements – it makes sense to me that, knowing that his death was drawing nearer, Mahler would have looked back on his life and what was important and dear to him. Even if life is the overarching theme of the Symphony, it does not mean that the music must be solely “happy,” because that is not a true representation of life. As a listener I can hear this complexity of emotions reflected in Mahler’s composition. For example, I heard the introduction of the second movement, with its buoyant trills in the upper woodwinds, as lively, but with a darker undertone of nostalgia or longing. Overall, I believe that it is impossible to assign either life or death as an exclusive theme of the work, because the two are so closely intertwined; in the human experience, one does not exist without the other, and this is clearly reflected in Mahler’s music.
The fourth movement of Mahler’s symphony, however, stood alone to me when I heard it. It is extremely slow, and begins with a single melody in the strings, which gradually deepens and transforms to richer harmonies, and then the music fades away. I found myself captivated and perplexed by the music to the degree that I was literally leaning to the edge of my seat, and at the end of piece, the audience was silent for nearly half a minute. If any of the movements of the Symphony are contemplative and haunted by death, the fourth movement is the one, and this is very clear to listeners. I found myself thinking about the music after I had walked out of the Michigan Theater and back down the street.
As Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan observed of Mahler’s ninth symphony, “It is music coming from another world, it is coming from eternity.” For anyone who has not experienced Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, it is a composition not to be missed, and the Ann Arbor Symphony’s performance of the piece certainly did it justice.