The Kansas City Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 was a resounding exhibition of remarkable solo voices and superb ensemble work. Helzberg Hall allowed for the work’s demanding dynamic expectations, the subtleties in timbral combinations and the interplay of voices as themes ricocheted through the ensemble.
Music director Michael Stern, displaying emotional and physical stamina, conducted the 70-minute symphony with no intermission, waiting for absolute silence from the hall before the downbeat.
Symphony No. 9 was composed in a state of personal turmoil for Mahler – his daughter died suddenly and he was diagnosed with heart disease – and premiered posthumously. The work’s four movements cast widely between the struggle to combat mortality and grief and the yearning for peace and resolution.
The work began softly, with an introspective retreat to nature, laced with horn calls. This pastoral peace of sighing two- and three-note figures quickly took a darker turn, as though tipping over a waterfall. Therein, the movement transformed with each moment as sections of delicate, emergent solo voices swelled to agitated disintegration with full forces and back again in cycles of tension and release.
The sturdy triple time of the second movement pulsed with the influence of the Ländler, an Austrian folk dance. The second violins dug into the melody before it was tossed scattershot around the ensemble, one voice beginning a figure with another finishing it, the focus constantly shifting. A waltz remained buoyant as it hinted at disenchanted undercurrents in an overtly light-hearted piece.
A drastic start jolted the brass-heavy third movement, maintaining Mahler’s twists of thematic presentation. The trumpet solo heralded a lyrical section with harp glissando and shimmering violin tremolo, interrupted by bursts from brass, triangle and piccolo. These spurts evolved into a tumult of sections grinding and gnashing against each other, punctured by moments of simple clarity, racing to a breathless climax.
The strings treated an extended melody with tender, choral-like voicing in the final movement, their depth of sound magnifying translucent harmonics. Generous crescendos unleashed ringing releases, with nuanced solo voices–the principal strings and most of the winds–supported by balanced chords.
In the final moments the strings restated melodic fragments in a gradual diminuendo that had the same ambiguous finality as the elusive moment when dusk falls wholly to night.
The performance was an impressive undertaking, highlighting the many strengths of the ensemble and conveying the emotional breadth of Mahler’s score.