Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra hit a fresh peak with their performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony, the "Tragic."
It may be possible for some folks to hear Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 6 as a purely objective work of art, a collection of mere notes that follow distinctively organized structural and harmonic paths to some abstract purpose.
But just try to keep that detachment going in the finale, after the first massive blow of a hammer that slices through the thick orchestral textures. If that doesn't throw you off guard, a second blow coming a while later will surely do the trick, shattering any last thoughts of abstraction.
A great performance — and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's account with music director Marin Alsop Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore met that definition — makes you viscerally aware of just how much every note of this score counts for much more than sonic energy.
In this 1906 work, Mahler creates here nothing less than a titanic struggle, as personal as it is universal. It's an exploration of what it means to be human and to care, to seek a meaningful existence against any odds. This is music of heart and soul, as well as astounding intellect.
Just about every conceivable mood swing — dread, exaltation, irony, love, nostalgia, sarcasm, confidence, fear — becomes part of this drama. And if it all ends with an air of defeat and finality, you walk away not so much dispirited as awed. Grateful, too, for the opportunity to experience this eventful journey.
The BSO hadn't made that journey for 24 years before this week's concerts, which may be one reason for the extra intensity that emanated from the Strathmore stage. Things should be just as powerful, if not more so, in the remaining performances at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Alsop's conducting of the Sixth Symphony struck me as her finest hour yet with this orchestra. Make that her finest 80 minutes — it's a long piece, and the only one on the program.
Her tempos were admirable from the start. She did not rush the opening movement's menacing march as many do, and she allowed plenty of breathing room for the violins' radiant theme that breaks through the music's dark edge.
Alsop paced the Andante with exquisite breadth, letting the lyrical warmth sink in fully, and brought out the bite of the sardonic Scherzo effectively. In the long finale, she held its many shifts of rhythm and character together tightly and made it easy to see what so many commentators have seen in this music — a hero's determined effort to prevail and the stark intervention of a ruthless fate.
Communication between podium and players was tight throughout. That rapport translated into music-making as urgent as it was nuanced.
A frayed edge or two had little significance in light of the expressive music-making. The brass made the symphony's motto — a major chord turned minor — register palpably at each appearance. The woodwinds offered great color. The strings summoned considerable beauty of tone.
The expanded percussion section hit the spot, and not just in moments of high drama. The gently rustling cowbells, one of the most ingenious and haunting elements Mahler uses in this symphony, were beautifully handled.
As for the famous hammer blows, they were delivered as mightily as you could want by Brian Prechtl, striking a large box specially constructed for the occasion by fellow percussionist John Locke. It can be argued that Mahler had in mind a less reverberant sound — a colder, crueler thud — but the effect here proved awfully arresting nonetheless.
The only disappointment of the evening came from the audience, where an eager applauder jumped the gun at the end of the performance. There wasn't enough time to let the music's uncommon weight sink in all the way.
The BSO performs Mahler's Symphony No. 6 at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.