Mahler's Farewell Given Gleaming Advocacy by Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra

August 08, 2009

Kalmar and the Grant Park players deserve the highest accolades for this performance, with first-class playing in all departments.

Traditionally, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has served as the Big Bertha of the symphonic repertoire, a work reserved for special occasions and a vehicle for a conductor and orchestra to demonstrate their corporate virtuosity and interpretive depth.

In the last decade, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 has provided a bit of competition as the ultimate musical blood-workup—an epic, complex, hugely demanding work that—even sans vocal soloists and chorus—presents a test of a conductor and orchestra’s mettle.

Ravinia and the Grant Park Music Festival are both performing the ninth symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler this summer, and next weekend Chicago’s lakefront festival will wrap its 75th season with Beethoven’s bear-hug embrace of humanity. On Friday night, however, Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra took their turn at Mahler’s death-haunted Ninth at the Harris Theater.

With its scale, extraordinary demands and interpretive pitfalls, Mahler’s Ninth is a kind of physical and intellectual triathalon for musicians. It requires a first-rate orchestra, a conductor who knows where he wants to go with this Leviathan, and the podium skills to convince his players to follow him on the journey.

It is a testament to the achievement of Kalmar in Chicago and the partnership he has built and honed over the last decade with Grant Park’s superb musicians that they could not only perform Mahler’s ninety-minute epic with complete technical assurance but pull it off with such impressive expressive power and eloquence.

Outwardly, Mahler’s last-completed symphony is his wiedersehen to life and his art, the handprints of his style—-the rustic Landler, ironic contrasts and heart-piercing sadness— magnified and intensified, fraught with not just personal devastation but far-reaching import and broader significance for the world at large.

Fine as they are, the Grant Park strings can’t quite match the rich sonority and burnished ballast of their CSO counterparts, and in the opening Andante, that lack of weight was evident. Still, Kalmar drew striking delicacy and transparency from the string choirs in the long first movement.

Yet while the playing was immaculate, the performance felt almost too well-groomed, missing that danger and unblinking stare into the darkest shadows of the abyss. The malign muted brass emerged more like a clever scoring detail than metaphysical danger, and while unfailingly polished, alertly balanced, and dynamically scrupulous, there was little of the music’s tormented soul.

Yet with the second movement, the performance found its footing. Here Kalmar and the players delved beneath the gleaming surface, bringing out the rude energy of the galumphing semi-satiric Landler, with Kalmar teasing out the subversive irony. In the ensuing Rondo-Burleske, the performance really hit its stride, the fury and acid cynicism built up to a daunting whirlwind of unhinged mania.

Kalmar and the orchestra rose to the supreme challenge of the closing Adagio masterfully. The conductor led an intensely expressive rendering of the thirty-minute finale, one that fully conveyed the deep rumination and philosophical sense of last things. With strikingly polished and acutely nuanced playing by the Grant Park musicians, the eventual stoic acceptance was movingly conveyed, the final faltering string phrases dying away to silence having a profound effect.

Kalmar and all the Grant Park players deserve the highest accolades for this performance, with first-class playing in all departments. Special kudos to the sterling contributions of many principals, including concertmaster Jeremy Black, violist Terri Van Valkinburgh, oboist Martin Hebert, bassoonist Eric Hall, hornist Jonathan Boen and trumpet David Gordon.

Lawrence Johnson, Chicago Classical Review