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S.D. musicians set a new standard for the Mahler symphony

Jahja Ling
San Diego Union-Tribune

If - as Leonard Bernstein once said - lots of orchestras can play all the notes of a Mahler symphony, but only a few know how it goes, the San Diego Symphony's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 6 on Friday at Copley Symphony Hall firmly established the orchestra's right to claim membership among that happy few.

Leading the first of three weekend performances, Music Director Jahja Ling took both orchestra and audience on a journey that explored the only question that really matters in art, and the only one that can never be fully answered: What does it mean to be a human being?

The nickname "Tragic," which was given to this symphony shortly after its 1906 premiere, offers at least an implied answer to that important question, but the music itself refuses to capitulate to a tragic view of life. Even in its final bleak pages, when the famous "hammer blows" have twice struck down the surging optimism that asserts and reasserts itself, the resilience of the human spirit flickers and gleams as the music shudders to a stop.

But let's go back to the beginning.

From the moment he raised his baton, Ling was in complete command of the business at hand. Attacks and releases were clean, balances were never left to chance, tempo changes did not derail the piece's interior engine. Details were attended to without impeding the forward flow of the music, whether it was a quick highlighting of some of the amazing counterpoint in the first movement or the inner string voices in the third-movement Andante.

Most important of all, Ling threw out to the orchestra a musical line, which the players caught, held and pulled taut for the next hour and a half. The players' intense commitment to the work made it seem as if the music itself were the salvation we all seek against the darkness that can sometimes overwhelm us.

More than any other Mahler symphony, No. 6 stands or falls on the playing of the woodwinds and brass. Time and again, clarinets, oboes, French horns, trombones and trumpets are asked to effect radical mood shifts, sometimes veering from refinement to vulgarity in a phrase or even a single bar.

Responding to these challenges, the orchestra set a standard that will be hard to surpass in future Mahler performances. As difficult as it is to single out individual players in a situation where everyone makes an important contribution, special mention must be made of acting principal French horn Benjamin Jaber and principal clarinetist Sheryl Renk, not only for superb playing but for their impressive stamina over the course of an extraordinarily long and demanding work.

In this symphony, the strings have a double challenge: weaving a strong orchestral fabric to support the extremes of the winds and percussion, and being ready - when the time comes - to soar. Concertmaster Jeff Thayer led his colleagues with such purpose that they sounded as fresh at the end of the evening as at the beginning.

Principal viola Che-Yen Chen spurred that often overlooked section to play with such clarity and focus that, particularly in the inner two movements, the Scherzo and the Andante, the entire body of strings made every note count in the way that distinguishes great performances from merely good ones.

The concert began with J.S. Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major, BWV 552, in a shimmering transcription of the organ original made by Frederick Stock for the Chicago Symphony.

In the end, Bach's dance rhythms did not find their footing, and the piece remained earthbound. The orchestra may have had other things on its mind at that point, and if we had to have a less-than-stellar Bach in order to have world-class Mahler, so be it.

The last notes of Mahler left the audience both stunned and grateful - stunned by the vehement power of the music, and grateful for the artistry that had made it possible.

Applause seemed somehow inadequate, but after 10 seconds or so of silence, audience members let loose with a prolonged ovation that surely was their heartfelt response to the music's eternal question.