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Tilson Thomas and the NSO breathe new life into the ‘Resurrection’

The conductor ends his mini-residency at the Kennedy Center with a performance of Mahler’s sprawling second symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the National Symphony Orchestra and the Choral Arts Society of Washington at the Kennedy Center on March 31. (Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post)

When a standing ovation greets a conductor before he even makes it to the podium, you might imagine that the only way to go is down.

But no such simple journey awaited Michael Tilson Thomas for the second program of his mini-residency with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center: If anything, taking on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor — the sprawling, five-movement “Resurrection,” first performed in 1895 — is a matter of continuous, ceaseless, ecstatic rising to its own occasion.

And Thomas did just that, surrounded by an NSO in full force and presided over by the Choral Arts Society of Washington (led by Scott Tucker), filling the chorister seats and stage boxes. Thomas, who is contending with aggressive brain cancer (for which he began treatment last August), is one of the world’s foremost conductors of Mahler. His recordings of the composer account for seven of his 12 Grammy awards. (Thomas also is nominated this year for “Berg: Violin Concerto, Seven Early Songs, Three Pieces for Orchestra,” a recording with the San Francisco Symphony.)

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If there were any questions in the nearly sold-out Concert Hall about Thomas’s fortitude, they were quickly scattered by the clearly spiritual and physical relationship he maintains with this work, its odyssey of an hour-and-a-half hard-wired into his nerves.

Thursday night’s was a different Thomas from the one I had watched last week: For one thing, he had a lot more management and multitasking on his hands, so he was all business. But moreover, the conductor just inhabits Mahler differently than he did his selected composers from last week’s concerts. To Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” he brought a foreman’s efficiency; to his own “Four Preludes” he deployed meticulous playfulness.

Thomas didn’t bear the “Resurrection” like a burden or release it like a buoy. He tended it like a fire, keeping its heat high even when its roar was low — or completely silent. This strategy was evident early in the first movement, when Thomas gently whipped up the strings like a cold wind cutting through its funeral march — and especially later in the movement, when he set the orchestra alight as though spraying gasoline.

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The “Resurrection” being a symphony beyond symphonies, and paper being a finite medium, we’re not getting into everything that happened. (And if your smartphone also was within the warning zone of Thursday’s tornado alerts, you can probably already imagine one particularly unfortunate stretch of unwitting crowd participation that turned one choral passage into a swarm of synthetic cicadas.) But each movement of the symphony had wonder, and, in true MTT form, all its wonders had movement.

Funereal as its first movement may be — see Mahler’s direction: “With complete gravity and solemnity of expression” — Thomas kept it full-to-bursting with beauty. That this symphony begins with an ending is a clue to its ultimate course, and the melodic threads Mahler weaves in early on — like the echoes of the medieval chant “Dies Irae” — linger for the long term like the stubborn strands of a dream.

The movement also has staggering breadth (it goes from gentle to cataclysmic in a matter of minutes), itself indicative of the symphony’s scope on the whole. It’s more than a prologue or an establishing shot: It’s a careful introduction of colors, an intricate staging of uncertainties that must be executed, as it was on Thursday, with extreme sensitivity.

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Thomas took a minute or two after the first movement (Mahler calls for five) before launching into the lilting Ländler of the second (marked “Sehr gemächlich. Nie eilen” — or, “Very leisurely. Never rush”). The orchestra brought warmth, grace and wit to it. David Hardy’s cello was a special highlight, drawing a beautiful singing line over a staccato repeat of the main theme. The later pizzicato reprise also was a delight, Thomas playing with the orchestra’s dimensionality in exciting ways. Its vaporous conclusion, an impossibly quiet parting kiss to sweet memories of yesterday, was sullied by the thud of some dude dropping his phone on the floor.

The string section brought agility and richness to a third movement crackling with energy. The music here is a swirling evocation of the indifference of fish to a sermon (you tried your best, St. Anthony), growing darker and more anxious, with sudden fits, errant fanfares and rising terrors. Lin Ma’s serpentine clarinet was a thrill to hear, and the swooning core of the scherzo held some of the most honeyed horn work of the evening. The movement’s climactic “cry of despair,” as it’s sometimes called, straightened my entire row in their seats.

As one attendee confided in me after the show, “The mezzo was worth the price of admission.” That mezzo-soprano, Alice Coote, is herself something of a modern Mahler master, having recorded his song cycles as well as his “Das Lied von der Erde.

Her entrance at the outset of the fourth movement was stunning — as soft as the bloom of the rose she intoned (“O Röschen rot!”). The movement, titled “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”), draws its text from another cycle of Mahler’s orchestral songs based on folk poems, “Des Knaben Wunderhorn.” Coote’s presence alone was commanding, but it was her voice that stole the show, rising from glassy fragility to a steely gleam.

The titanic fifth movement was where the symphony started to test the players. A splendid duo between Aaron Goldman’s flute and Carole Bean’s piccolo was soured by a harsh off-note from the trumpets, and here and there the timing of the brass seemed to come loose.

It was deep into this movement, right about the time the chorus was conjuring one of its softest reassurances — “You are sown in order to bloom again” — that the phones started blowing up.

Dozens of them, all around the hall, way up in the boxes — a jarring surround-sound wash of shrill squeals sounding from myriad purses and pockets, triggering widespread seat-shifting panic all around me as folks raced to stifle or otherwise smother the disruption. I could imagine John Luther Adams making great use of this mayhem, maybe even the wind of the reported tornadoes. Not so much Mahler. Thomas remained unfazed and on task.

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The Choral Arts Society of Washington, all 108 of them, certainly didn’t deserve such uninvited accompaniment from the National Weather Service. But despite it, they sounded lovely throughout this crucial movement — if a little hurried for my taste. I especially enjoyed the varying intensities they delivered through Mahler’s musical italics: “Tremble no more” sung as light as a prayer; “Prepare to live!” with the fire of an epiphany.

Soprano Jacquelyn Stucker also was a bright light of the evening, her lines more stunning when peeling away from the chorus into flight.

In the concluding lines of the “Resurrection” rests a caption of sorts for the evening: “With wings that I have earned / Will I soar.” From the midst of the finale’s maelstrom, it was hard to imagine those words as referring to anything else but Thomas’s own powers — his musical legacy, still vital and incandescent before us.

This is a symphony that asks the big questions: What are we here for? Do we live in vain? Thomas led us through the fire to where the answers can be found: in the silence that follows.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Mahler’s “Resurrection” repeats April 1 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center.