"Only when I experience intensely do I compose," Gustav Mahler said. "Only when I compose do I experience intensely."
What he experienced while writing his Symphony No. 9 must have been the most intense of all. This is a journey into the heart — and from the heart — that seems to sum up a lifetime thinking about nature, humanity, mortality. There is in this music a keen sense of the past, the present and the future.
A sensitive performance of Mahler's Ninth draws you in from the first faint notes, with their suggestion of a heartbeat, and doesn't let you go even after the slow, final fade. Hajime Teri Murai conducted such a performance with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra Saturday night.
Murai is in his last semester as director of orchestral activities at the Peabody Institute, a post he has held for more than 25 years. (He's retiring from teaching at Peabody and will receive the title of music director laureate). I've seen him conduct quite often ofter the past 15 of those years, enough times to feel safe in suggesting that this Mahler Ninth concert is his finest achievement to date.
He has always struck me as a thoughtful, sincere and exceedingly dedicated musician who, above all, strives to get students to think deeply about what they are playing, to feel the essence of a phrase. Murai's passion could be felt thought the performance in Peabody's Friedberg Hall.
I think the large audience felt it, too -- I don't remember a single cough in the place during the nearly 90 minutes of music-making.
This felt very much like a true communal event. How extraordinary it was to sit for so long a spell after the last notes dissipated, everyone onstage and in the hall seemingly unable to move a muscle. And when the ovation finally erupted, it sure sounded cathartic.
Murai's approach to the score was straightforward, but never impersonal. He maintained an underlining pulse, yet offered plenty of breathing room. Where Mahler called for tension, the conductor was particularly attentive -- the close of the first and fourth movements demonstrated that very well.
Note, too, how powerfully Murai charged into the Rondo-Bureske's coda, suggesting a carousel pushed to the breaking point and suddenly breaking free of all earthly bonds.
The Peabody Symphony responded impressively, nowhere more so than in that close to the Rondo-Burleske; the weight and intensity of the ensemble's sound proved startling.
The strings had a particularly strong night, in technical cohesion and expressive nuance; they handled the concluding diminuendo with remarkable control. The second violins brought an extra dash of fire to their pivotal passages in the second movement.
Principal violist Xinyi Xu's rich-toned solos hit the spot; contributions by concertmaster Jeongmin Lee and principal cellist Minzo Kim also registered vividly.
Not every brass or woodwind phrase was a thing of finely tuned beauty, but, overall, the players acquitted themselves well. The percussion battery was a sturdy presence. Principal timpanist Daniel Raney did telling work throughout.
All in all, a satisfying, affecting encounter with Mahler's incomparable Ninth Symphony.