KC Symphony’s Mahler performance a thrilling gem

There is nothing ordinary about the music of Gustav Mahler.

Nor was there anything ordinary about the performance of his massive Symphony No. 6 in A Minor, “Tragic,” performed by the Kansas City Symphony Friday night at Helzberg Hall.

Mahler’s music features a wide array of technical challenges with musical extremes. The landscape constantly shifts from soft to loud, slow to fast, dancelike to heartrending. To effectively and convincingly execute a Mahler symphony takes enormous concentration, talent and technique.

The work calls for an enormous orchestra, including four flutes, four oboes, four bassoons, four clarinets, eight horns and six trumpets. This affords the opportunity for a prodigious orchestral sound and a broad palette of instrumental colors.

Mahler composed his 6th Symphony in 1903-05 and revised it in 1908. The composer’s most classical symphony in its construction (four movements and the use of sonata form) , the work is nevertheless among his most profound expressive compositions. The work was not particularly popular in its early years.

Its massive length (nearly an hour and a half) calls for extraordinary energy and endurance for both the performers and the audience.

Music Director Michael Stern seemed well aware of the gravity of the moment as he walked across the stage.

He told the audience it was about to experience a monumental work, and that even though the work is subtitled “Tragic,” the music also exudes optimism, joy, and personal and communal transcendence.

The work opened with insistent bass notes and a dramatic theme. The music featured crisp and accurate string pizzicatos and well-blended winds and brass. A more ethereal section followed, with a handful of nicely performed solos, including those by violinist and concertmaster Noah Geller and horn player Alberto Suarez.

A sense of drama and excitement permeated the opening movement. Occasional flaws occurred—at a couple of points the violin intonation was suspect and from time to time the low brass played too loud, disrupting the balance. Nevertheless, the music was glorious and exhilarating.

The original score places the slow movement as the third section of the symphony. Stern, by contrast, chose to perform it as the second section, which was the way Mahler himself performed the movement. I have heard it both ways and am convinced Stern’s instincts were spot on. The contrast of the sensitive, lyrical melodies after the dramatic opening movement was palpable. A powerful extended forte section followed near the end of the movement, and the spinning down to the slow, expressive conclusion was quite moving.

The third movement, a scherzo, began big and brassy. Faster sections alternated with slower ones, but synchronization problems were evident several times during the tempo changes.

The finale was a musical and emotional roller coaster, opening with a slow, emotionally wrought passage filled with pathos and expression. While the tempo quickened and the texture thickened, the troubled musical undercurrent never disappeared.

Again a handful of intonation problems occurred, but the overall effect of the movement was forceful, and at times overwhelming. The orchestra infused the music with remarkable fervor and intensity.

The Kansas City Symphony continues to prove itself in the right place at the right time.

The significant improvements in building the orchestra in recent years, combined with the marvelous acoustics of Helzberg Hall and dynamic programming of Michael Stern resulted in a thrilling evening with a musical gem.