In 1906, Alma Mahler found her composer husband, Gustav, “sobbing, wringing his hands, unable to control himself” in the artist’s room backstage at the Vienna Philharmonic. He had just finished conducting the dress rehearsal of his new Symphony No. 6 and was beside himself, overwrought at the literal hammer strokes of fate he had composed into the final movement of the work, a presage of harm he superstitiously felt he was bringing down upon himself. (He eventually wrote one out of the score, the one that was supposed to end the 75-minute symphony.)
And it was exactly when at the moment those hammer strokes were heard on Wednesday night, struck by a TSO percussionist staggering under the weight of the immense wooden mallet he was wielding for his task, that the Toronto Symphony’s Mahler No. 6 transformed into a moment for the ages. Led by an energized and inspired guest conductor, Thomas Dausgaard, the TSO’s 100-odd members performed as a single musical mind, wringing every moment of drama, rich sonority and musical line from this sprawling, messy masterpiece.
Like so much of Mahler’s music, No. 6 exists in a world where dream and nightmare collide, one sliding imperceptibly into the other. And the fantastic night world of this symphony begins and ends, and is shot throughout, with the sound of war. Insistent military rhythms are heard in the lower strings, drums boom out, fanfares explode. But, as in all dreams, the musical imagery of Mahler’s No. 6 changes in an instant – now the music is tender, now comical, now confusing, now violent.
What makes Mahler so satisfying, and so difficult is that these kaleidoscopic moments of fantasy are organized by strict musical principles – the forms that composers before Mahler had developed for more than a century to shape their work. The key to performing Mahler successfully is to be sensitive and alive to each of the hundreds of dream-like mood swings in the music but to let audiences hear the overall shape of the narrative as well.
And that’s where Dausgaard was such a brilliant interpreter of this complex music. Obviously committed to the score’s fantastic sound world and unafraid of the music’s often quizzical changes of emotional scene, Dausgaard nonetheless never let these individual moments ruin the arc of the whole. Often, in the wrong hands, Mahler becomes, finally, an overwhelming mass of tiny musical ideas, eventually exhausting. Not with Dausgaard. His hour-and-15-minutes of Mahler shadow play sped by in a heartbeat.
And Dausgaard inspired brilliant performances from the Toronto Symphony, both collectively and individually. Despite the fact that Mahler’s orchestra for No. 6 was among his largest – more than 100 players onstage – the score is full of chamber-music-like moments, where soloists and groups of two or three musicians take centre stage. Solos by the TSO’s horn players, oboists, violinists and contrabassoonists were uniformly gorgeous, literally without a note out of place; and the orchestra as a whole played as well as I’ve ever heard it.
As an unusual change of pace, chamber music also featured in the short first half of the TSO’s program, with Dausgaard wisely avoiding the impossible task of preceding Mahler with other orchestral music. Instead, where we heard the first-desk players of the TSO’s string sections, joined by pianist Jamie Parker, in two short chamber works – a string-quartet movement by Franz Schubert and an unfinished Piano Quartet by a then-16-year-old Mahler. The Mahler especially was fascinating, not so much as an indication of what was to come from this fascinating composer, but as a reminder of how far artistic personalities can travel within a single lifetime. Mahler became central to Western music’s understanding of itself in the second half of the 20th century. On Wednesday night, we learned that this understanding is undimmed in the 21st.