Michael Tilson Thomas’ season-capping Mahler series with the New World Symphony has finally come around to the Symphony No. 7, a rarely heard work that’s considered the most difficult of all for listeners to appreciate.
The Seventh Symphony has been called Mahler’s most forward-looking work. What it looked forward to, of course, was music that a lot of people don’t like. Arnold Schönberg was a great admirer, and musicologists have detected the symphony’s influence on the work of his colleagues, Alban Berg and Anton Webern.
A sense of occasion always accompanies these Mahler concerts, led by a conductor considered among the world’s leading interpreters of the composer’s music. The performance Saturday at New World Center in Miami Beach was sold out. About two dozen people waited in line for standby tickets. Despite the rain, a few hundred people gathered in the adjacent park with umbrellas and ponchos to watch the concert’s Wallcast.
Like other Mahler symphonies, the Seventh calls for a huge orchestra and some unusual instruments — cowbells, a baritone horn, a guitar and mandolin. There are passages of orchestral grandeur that could have come from the era of Dvořák and Brahms, light operetta-style tunes, screeching, tortured writing for strings, winds and brass, and a weirdly triumphant finale that some find difficult to relate to what came before.
Tilson Thomas took the first movement at a deliberate tempo, without the edge of hysteria that marks some performances. This gave the movement a darker, more weighted quality that allowed the daring harmonies and sudden shifts of mood to emerge naturally, without being forced. The ominous, pulsing opening built gradually to its climax, rather than violently and abruptly. Strings were terrific Saturday — taut and searing, and grand and sweeping by turns. The ending of the movement was magnificent, beginning with a stark, piercing cadence in brass with dissonances that resolve into more dissonances over tremolos in the strings — a headlong passage of great weight and power.
The second movement opens with two solo horns, both played with robust, assertive accuracy that set the tone for the fine horn playing throughout. Mahler’s music is full of jovial and sentimental passages that leave you unsure whether to take them at face value or with some combination of irony, nostalgia or satire. The cheerful tunes of this movement came across as particularly veiled, so that when they turn strange toward the end, with odd harmonies and turns of phrase, it came as no great shock.
Mahler also wrote some of the eeriest music in the orchestral repertoire, among them the Scherzo of the Seventh, marked Schattenhaft (Shadowy). Under Tilson Thomas’ direction, it was especially murky, with whispering figures in the strings, sudden, shrieking, discordant chords and snarls in the winds.
A sense of nostalgia pervades the fourth movement. There was more great horn playing, oboe solos full of character and poignant emotion. And in this movement we heard the guitar and mandolin, playing sentimental melodies suffused with a feeling of looking back at happy days that have long passed.
The finale was marked by great, noble brass playing, topped by shining notes in the trumpets. A lot of the movement’s strutting, military quality comes from its extravagant use of the timpani. Timpanist Alex Wadner handled this crucial part with accuracy and panache, quickly moving between his drums with crisp precision.
If the Seventh Symphony doesn’t quite feel in the same class as such Mahler masterpieces as the Second, Third, Fifth and Ninth, this was a magnificent, resonant performance. Tilson Thomas was clearly happy with the results, being generous with solo bows for members of the orchestra and applauding the musicians along with the audience.