St. Louis Symphony Plays Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor
My first performance to review for the new season was a real treat! The Saint Louis Symphony decided to take on Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 3 in D Minor” (performed without intermission). Clocking in at around and hour and forty minutes, it is Mahler’s longest written piece. Filling the conductor’s position was David Robertson, in his 8th season with the St. Louis Symphony.
True to his reputation, Robertson’s musical direction was captivating throughout the performance. Maintaining the integrity of the original piece while still bringing his particular sense of adventure he is so well known and admired for.
Having done a bit of research on Mahler’s “Symphony No. 3”, I knew that the premise of the composition was trying to capture aspects of the natural world. In scope, he intends to depict ‘nature in its totality’, by means of meadow flowers, forest creatures, humans, angels and love. What I heard was dramatically much more. I heard the very beginning of life – from the creation and evolution of the universe throughout time — up to and through the present day.
It starts with a very ominous brass section conjuring up images of all the matter in the universe colliding, then slowing and turning into a sporadic march. The low end strings (cello and double bass) abruptly entering with a very deep and foreboding rumble. Playing off of each other, the brass and strings seem to be fighting for dominance. Finally a break –the flutes and woodwinds bring in what sounds to be the song of new life — spring. Mahler’s genius shines through here as the brass section turns more playful and triumphant while the strings swing and sway over different solo instruments depicting new growth.
At the end of the first movement there was a slight pause to let the women’s choir take the stage. A few over eager concert goers started in with precarious applause, thinking it was the end of the piece. Symphony Conductor Robertson casually turned to say “it’s okay” motivating broad smiles all around — giving some viewers a chuckle and a break from the intensity of the performance.
The second performance started off very pleasantly and gave me images of simple living, natural harmony and lazy days spent whiling away the hours between naps and the next sleep. This feeling continued through the third movement, adding somewhat moody parts foreshadowing a more brooding fourth section.
At this point, mezzo-soprano, Susan Graham took the stage and a very luxurious, royal red dress. The symphony musicians led her into a very somber and striking performance. As obvious as it might be, these were the first words sung of the night, and to me, represented the beginning of human life in the timeline of creation. With english translation on the wall it gave the audience a glimpse of humankind’s tendency to poeticize our surroundings. The words gave mention to heartache, pain and joy all while the symphony played somber, more introspective music.
I was starting to find myself in a quiet calm – almost approaching sleepiness — lost in the mellow melancholic music being lifted through my ears when, seemingly out of nowhere, the children’s choir rang out behind me. David Robertson turned to command this new section, leading them in a repetitive “Bim-Bom” which was meant to sound like bells while the female choir chimed in as well. For me, life (Spring) had finally sprung and blossomed. After a while, I turned to notice the children’s choir shuffling away just as silently as they had come in.
The singing ceased for the final movement. All of the parts seem to come together now, in unison. Where once they were fighting for dominance, there was now a harmony about it. What started out as a lament slowly grew into a forceful celebration of the beauty and wonder of our natural world. The swell of the melody players was driven by the percussion section — with booming timpani bringing the sound to a very triumphant climax.
I was left in awe of what I had just heard and seen — feeling fortunate to have had the opportunity to see this rare performance done extremely well by our local St. Louis Symphony. Don’t miss your opportunity to see them play this season. You won’t regret it.
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