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PostClassical Ensemble gives Mahler’s 4th symphony ‘A Wicked New Look’

Bass trombonist David Taylor joins the ensemble for a program of miniaturized Mahler and big surprises.

Angel Gil-Ordóñez conducts the PostClassical Ensemble on Wednesday at the Kennedy Center. (Daniel Schwartz)
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Spring is here, and Mahler’s in the air.

At the start of April, the National Symphony Orchestra presented the composer’s second symphony (the “Resurrection”) under the baton of special guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. (That same weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tweaked said symphony into its own “Resurrection Mixtape.”) Last week, the National Philharmonic presented its pandemic-postponed program of “Mozart and Mahler,” featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor.

And on Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, the PostClassical Ensemble presented “Mahler’s Fourth: A Wicked New Look,” a spring awakening of one of the Austrian composer’s most beloved works.

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

With his sweeping pastoral landscapes bursting with harmonic color (and reliably undercut by icy gales of irony and uncertainty), it’s no surprise that Mahler’s music tends to bloom in orchestra pits whenever spring rolls in. There’s a freshness, a lightness and vitality to his symphonic music, a grandeur that manages to be approachable and familiar — folksy, even. His hills, to borrow a phrase, are alive.

For Wednesday’s performance, PostClassical shrunk these landscapes down to a set of snow-globes, offering a suite of Mahler in miniature — a program of various pieces arranged for 14-piece chamber ensemble.

Music director Angel Gil-Ordóñez offered his own arrangements of the Funeral March from Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, as well as “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” (from his 1884 “Songs of a Wayfarer”) — the latter recomposed to showcase the bass trombone of guest David Taylor.

These were followed by Klaus Simon’s exquisite 2007 chamber arrangement of Mahler’s fourth symphony of 1901, its swinging scherzo further altered by Gil-Ordóñez and PostClassical executive producer Joseph Horowitz to make way for Taylor.

If the insistent-seeming inclusion of bass trombone seems odd — let alone iconoclastic bass trombone as personified by Taylor — let me tell you right now that it most certainly was. But Taylor’s unexpected contributions were also essential to hearing the “wicked new” part of the ensemble’s bold reimagining of Mahler.

Taylor, who has worked as comfortably with Leopold Stokowski and Pierre Boulez as with Duke Ellington and Thad Jones, has a long and fruitful relationship with PostClassical. His 2011 reworking of Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger” with the group has become a signature staple of his repertoire.

When Taylor emerged at the outset of “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” via a lowing guttural growl, a wave of grins and giggles spread across the audience like a breeze through a meadow. One reason for this reaction is that the bass trombone is the voice of a punchline: No matter how delicately dispatched, its sound is never far removed from that of a baby pachyderm that somehow got into the liquor cabinet.

It was sage thinking to introduce Taylor’s highly particular and peculiar approach to Mahler via the “Wayfarer” selection. Much like his adaptation of “Der Doppelgänger,” it provided a showcase of his control, an assurance of his emotional depth and a demonstration of his ability to coax a brute sensitivity seldom summoned from the bass trombone.

But unlike his engagement of Schubert’s darkness and beauty, Taylor’s exploration with Mahler seemed intent on foregrounding its internal tensions, its psychological landscape, the ache within the archetype.

This was especially so in the symphony, where the second movement (a Mahlerian treatment of a traditional Ländler) was transformed by Gil-Ordóñez and Horowitz into “a concertino for bass trombone and chamber ensemble.”

“We call the resulting 12-minute concoction ‘Mahlerei,' ” Horowitz wrote in his program notes.

Simon’s reduction of the symphony does a marvelous job foregrounding the tensions at work in Mahler: not least the internal push and pull of the composer’s identity as an assimilated Jew within the artistically rich and deeply antisemitic culture of Vienna at the time.

At its 1901 premiere in Munich, it was not the interjection of a trombone but the easily perceptible Jewish inflection of Mahler’s music that inspired giggles (as well as hearty boos) from the audience. Struggling against his own delight in the music, the self-identified antisemitic critic William Ritter wrote of the premiere that “what blinded us was the way it swung from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

What may have been further jarring to listeners at the time is Mahler’s continuous play with themes across the movements — an approach to recasting melodies and riffing on ideas that seems to presage jazz more than paying homage to classical variation. In this context, Taylor sounded uncannily at home in the music, its terrain the back of his hand.

Taylor’s presence seemed to authorize a slight relaxation of intonation across the ensemble — here a slight strain between the two violins, there a measure of scruff to the French horn. But his unbound sound also cultivated an air of forgiveness, an allowance of imperfection that only amplified the humanity of the music, while mitigating the distance one can sometimes feel at the foothills of the Fourth.

At times, the gulf between Taylor and the ensemble grew precarious, a jam gone wrong. This is partly a credit to PostClassical’s extreme delicacy in its handling of Simon’s arrangements. Taylor’s entrance into the scherzo was nimble but overwhelmingly wonky, tunewise — a hippo on ice skates.

But Gil-Ordóñez worked hard to froth the ensemble up around Taylor’s unruly column of sound. He put fat on the bones of the movement’s various melodies, letting them buckle under their unaccustomed weight. Mourning shudders rattled key lines as the ensemble struggled (often beautifully!) to empathize. Toward the end of the movement, Taylor loped to the rear of the stage, taking his ground-scraping lows with him in a slow, subdued huff. He eventually sidled offstage through a side door, still playing, and a contagious chuckle across the hall closed the movement.

If the idea of Taylor’s performance was to properly fill in the blanks of Mahler’s musical vistas, it might not have done the job — but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the point. If it was to suggest the possibility that at the core of the sweetest nostalgia churns a bitter alienation, mission accomplished. Otherwise, it was a strange and strangely satisfying experiment, the spirit of which cast dramatic shadows over the subsequent movements.

The finale of the Fourth was particularly arresting, its soprano part sung by 16-year-old Annalise Ross, a chorister at Washington National Cathedral who gamely stepped in at the last minute for fellow chorister Madeleine Murnick, who was unable to perform.

The movement — a luminous revelation in heavenly pleasures — is to be sung, per Mahler’s instruction, “with childishly gay expression” and “absolutely without parodying.” He got what he asked for in Ross, whose voice — vaporous and clear, still finding its form — made a perfect metaphorical fit for the spirit of this often spellbinding arrangement: Beautiful it was, complete it was not, perfect it may never be — all the more reason to listen more closely.