Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 27, 2018

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Mahler, Symphony No. 3

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
by Jarice Hanson and Frank Aronson

It is fitting to celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s Centennial Year with a special focus on Mahler. Maestro Bernstein was acknowledged as one of the great interpreters of Mahler’s work, and Andris Nelsons has picked up that lofty mantle. On Saturday night, August 24th, Nelsons conducted the six-part Symphony No. 3, with his characteristic economy of motion and ability to find texture and meaning in the almost two-hour symphony. For audience members who love Mahler (the Mahlerians), this was a very special night. From the thunderous response, it was successful on all levels.

Symphony No. 3 began with a brash introduction by horns and brass, then moved to drumbeats of a funeral procession before launching into a section in which various instruments played in a style Mahler referred to as “without regard for the beat.” Ironically, the first movement was written after the rest of the symphony, which gave it a feeling of a prequel for the later movements.

Mahler’s musical textures were particularly noticeable as the dual harps played in unison and the percussion section propelled the musical story forward. Mahler seemed to have loved the idea of an instrument or instrumental section performed elsewhere in the hall, and on this night, a haunting post horn (flugelhorn) was heard from off-stage where patrons sat with their picnic baskets and bottles of wine, allowing the audience in the Kousevitzky Shed to feel surrounded by sound. 

Photo by Chris Lee
Guest artist Susan Graham’s rich contralto was contrast with the voices of the Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony Children’s Choir, all singing what seemed to be bell tones in the words of Nietzsche’s Midnight Song from Thus spoke Zarathustra.

The majestic final movement featured booming tympanis (two were on stage) and directions that Mahler wrote that instructed the music to be “Langsam” (Slow), “Ruhevoll” (Peaceful), and “Empfunden” (Deeply Felt).

In 2007, music critic Joe Banno noted in The Washington Post that Mahler and Bernstein were “aesthetic twins.”   He enthused that Mahler's symphonies “with their giddy fits of nostalgia” were a perfect match for Bernstein’s emotional style of conducting. Though Maestro Nelsons was a contrast in movement on the podium, the end result was still the same. Mahler’s tightly controlled musical style came alive in the hands of a gifted conductor.