A First-Rate Mahler Third
Conlon and the Juilliard Orchestra Make Short Work of a Very Long One

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005

There are two central things to know about Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3: It is much too long (indeed, at just over 100 minutes, longer than any other symphony in the standard repertory), but it closes with a movement that is so achingly beautiful you never want it to end.

On Tuesday, James Conlon led the Juilliard Orchestra in a sweeping, detailed and altogether admirable rendition of this vast symphony in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Only the most blinkered of snobs could complain that this was a "student group." The young people who attend the Juilliard School are already as technically proficient as seasoned pros. Yet they are still testing their limits, with the result that they bring a fresh, emotional urgency to anything they play. They not only know how to create magic with their instruments, but they are also still susceptible to being moved by it themselves. In short, nobody played as though this were just another gig: The Juilliard Orchestra was striving for the metaphysical, and grasping it a good deal of the time.

Conlon must be one of the only conductors of his generation who seem absolutely uninfluenced by the fiercely subjective Mahler of the late Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein emphasized the composer's mixture of modernism and neurosis: Nothing was ever allowed to be simple in his Mahler performances. Conlon has chosen to stress melody, form, consistency; at times, I had the sense I was listening to the world's largest Haydn symphony -- and I mean that as a compliment. All was as clear and clean as Conlon could scrub it, and it came as a revelation.

I question Conlon's decision to break up the symphony with an intermission. Yes, Mahler permitted this himself on occasion and, yes, that gargantuan opening movement is almost 40 minutes long (only one of Mozart's symphonies was longer than that one Mahler movement). But any interruption necessarily sacrifices some of the symphony's organic integrity.

Moreover, coming to an end, however temporary, after the opening movement tends to make its reiterative grandiloquence sound gassier than it is. Put it this way: If I hadn't known I was listening to one gigantic six-movement symphony, I would have thought I had heard a frenetic and rather unappealing tone poem before intermission and a grand, stirring but somehow incomplete collection of diverse movements thereafter. Better to let the symphony stand as a whole, with its occasional weaknesses and much more prevalent strengths allowed to work together.

There is a spendthrift quality to Mahler's demands in this symphony: He calls for the engagement of a chorus, a children's chorus and a mezzo-soprano -- and then uses them for only about 10 minutes! Jane Gilbert sang the haunting and nocturnal "Oh Mensch! Gib'acht!" (a setting from Nietzsche's "Also sprach Zarathustra") with lyrical sweetness, although I prefer a heavier voice for this part. The Cathedral Choral Society and Children's Choir from the National Cathedral School fulfilled their brief duties with bright, focused energy.

And then there is that mind-splittingly lush, prayerful finale, music that can never be forgotten -- Mahler at his most direct and economical, without a wasted note. Conlon led the score with a welcome mixture of affection and authority, and his gifted forces responded with an interpretation that was both brilliant and straight from the heart, a difficult combination.

I do wish the audience had waited a moment or two longer before starting what soon became a (justly deserved) standing ovation, however: After 100 minutes, Mahler has earned a moment or two of silence, to permit us to reflect on the wonders we have just heard, before applause brings us back to earth.

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