If you want to celebrate Thanksgiving fully, make your way to the Kennedy Center tonight or Friday night to hear Mstislav Rostropovich conduct the National Symphony in the Fifth Symphony of Mahler.
Never mind that this is probably the most frequently played Mahler symphony these days. There are large concepts and myriad details in Rostropovich's reading that reveals, as does any grandly conceived interpretation, new vistas of the torrential work. The driving power of the opening movement, its frenetic energy and its ghostly echoes have not previously been more tellingly projected than last night.
The scarifying aspects of the stormy second movement, heard in the widest possible dynamic range, is a vivid realization of Mahler's intent. It is hard, even after many years with this music, to remember a performance in which Richard Wagner's Ring was more strongly recalled. Rostropovich persuaded the musicians to hurl out the explosive, epic phrases in a titanic mold entirely befitting the first three movements of the symphony.
Then there came the famous adagietto. The cellos of the National Symphony shone in golden splendor, wonderfully echoed by the violins, first and second both, while Dotian Carter made the harp exquistiely touching. If there was a sense of letting down, it came in the finale in those pages that sometimes wander unless under a taut rein. This is not to say that the closing pages were not epochal, only that they were not in the same vein as all that preceded them. There are other ways of reading some of this symphony, but they are not more convincing except in a few details.
Mahler was preceded by an intense playing of "Thanksgiving and/or Forefather's Day" by Charles Ives, for which Rostropovic found the proper mood. This is no "Over the hills and through the woods to grandmothers's house we go" Thanksgiving. It is Ives remembering tough, sinewy New England winteres, blessed with plenty, touched with hardship, cold under the snow but warm with gratitude. The Paul Hill Chorale sang its one verse of "O God! Beneath Thy Guiding Hand" with grand eloquence. This is a concert you want to hear.