With Mahler 9, The DSO Was Visceral And Emotionally Arresting

With Mahler 9, The DSO Was Visceral And Emotionally Arresting
Photo courtesy Paola Guzman Ramirez

There's someone crying, another...whimpering? But that's it. The Meyerson is a vacuum. There's an odd mood coursing through the rows of seats, a breathless silence, total and creaky. It hangs in the air like an iron blanket. The audience is motionless, wholly engaged, in awe. Here we have this grand and exquisite monolith, a concert hall as architectural masterpiece, and it's full of tuxedoed beasts in headlights.

It's quiet, sure, but it's a blaring, drowning type of quiet. It makes you suspicious of everything, everyone. Why are these people here? Who are they? What do they want? The Dallas Morning News' critic is just to my right, his eyes are darting and swiveling. Is he as upside-down as I am? Maybe he's just anxious. Or maybe he's looking at my notepad, hungry for any advantage he can get. I look down to my lap, at the top page, there's just one word: "silvery." That's not going to do either of us any good.

Clearly, I'm feeling paranoid. It doesn't help that from afar the concertmaster looks like that butler from The Shining, or that after intermission the powers-that-be make you choke down your cocktails at a moments notice; but really it all comes down to the music. Mahler 9 does things to you. Even in anticipation. Whoever called classical music boring never heard this composition. I'm sure of it. Uncomfortable, exhausting? Maybe. But there's no chance you come out the other side without strong opinions either way. Mahler 9 might move like a poem, but it stings like a megaton warhead.

The silence becomes twitchy calm as Jaap van Zweden sets things into motion. In The Ninth's opening movement, you are born, at sea in a twilight drift. At turns triumphant and brooding, it's a surreal affair, flitting between dreamy meditations and nightmarish roars. It really feels like the beginning of something immense, like the first stirrings of a strange and vast narrative.

The second and third movements are swift and playful, punctuated by stormy reminders of the symphony's fatalistic underpinnings. They're effervescent when not disorienting, hopeful when not venomous; there's so many winding turns at such blurry paces. And then the third ends much like it begins, with jumpy, manic mood swings, closing with one last stabbing exclamation point.

The last movement is almost excruciating, a pained, gloomy lurch of untold melancholy. This is the sound of genius wrestling with mortality. The word elegiac was made for art like this. It's the ever-present sense of inevitable tragedy that makes The Ninth's final chapter so disconcerting. It's terrifying in a comforting sort of way, actually. A very human way. "Death is coming, it's here," the music says. But the truth is that it was always out there, and that it was always going to find you. The music tells us this, too. Therein lies the reassurance, in the realization that impending expiration is a threat we all face, one to which we will all succumb. It's a deeply sympathetic position to be in. There's beauty in understanding that, in knowing that we're all headed to a similar end, that we're in this march together.

That's what Mahler 9 feels like. It's harrowing and trying but ultimately revelatory. In its end, tranquility is finally had. That paralyzing tension and unnerving weight from earlier in the night was at once relieved by the composition's final exhale. The execution on this night might have lacked the fine-grain detail of the best recorded accounts (namely, Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic), and it was, at times, heavy-handed, but it didn't matter. To me, Mahler 9 always sounds like an imbalanced and guttural event anyhow. And that's just how Jaap van Zweden and the DSO played it. The highly visceral and highly emotional branches of Mahler 9 - its heart and guts - came across loud and clear.

Following nights at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and the Dallas Chamber Symphony (whose choice of Shostakovich was brilliant), the Dallas Symphony Orchestra gave us the most memorable opening of them all. Friday night at the Meyerson was a success in that aim of all great performances, in capturing the spirit of the music and its maker. The shapes might have been different, and the sounds might have been too grim, too loud, or too quiet, but it was definitely Mahler 9. And I think that's the best compliment anyone could ever give it.

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