Despite distractions, Kalmar and Grant Park Orchestra deliver a strong Mahler Sixth

Sat Jun 25, 2016 at 3:29 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 was performed Friday night by Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra. Photo: Moritz Nähr

It took four decades for Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 to be heard in the United States after its premiere. Even in Mahler-friendly Chicago the work wasn’t heard at the Grant Park Music Festival until Carlos Kalmar conducted its belated debut in 2002.

Mahler’s epic symphony was the sole work on Friday night’s concert with Kalmar once again leading the Grant Park Orchestra. Spanning 80 minutes, the Sixth has moments of characteristic top-spun lyricism but the predominant mood is one of darkness and tragedy. Mahler’s symphony seemed an eerie premonition of personal events that devastated the composer (his firing from the Vienna State Opera, the diagnosis of his fatal heart condition and the death of his young daughter). In the final movement, the music’s progress is halted three times by fateful hammer blows (the last later cut by the superstitious composer, but often reinstated in performances).

One had to make more allowances than usual for al fresco distractions Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Screaming ambulance sirens almost buried the opening moments, later followed by low-flying planes and helicopters. There were also a stream of late arrivals, as well as a clueless woman on the left-center aisle who busied herself with noisily putting glass bottles in a paper bag during the hushed final section. Where were the festival ushers?

Kalmar is an excellent Mahlerian and, despite the disturbances, he and the superb Grant Park Orchestra musicians delivered a strong and dedicated performance of the Sixth Symphony.

At times one wished for a richer corporate sonority and the greater tonal polish that the CSO routinely provides in Mahler’s music. But Kalmar and colleagues brought a focus and tension to the score that overcame any doubts. He set a quick pace for the malign march that opens the first movement. If the music felt a bit streamlined in places where one would have liked more of Mahler’s quirky scoring to stand out, the “Alma” theme was duly ardent and the music had fine drive without neglecting the shadowy moments.

Mahler was ambivalent about the order of the middle movements before deciding to place the Andante second and Scherzo third. Traditionally conductors have tended to favor the original sequence but Kalmar showed he is his own man by using the composer’s revised order.

That provides greater contrast with the Andante coming after the long first movement. But I think the expressive depth of the slow movement demands the greater resonance it has placed before the tragic finale.

Regardless, the Andante rises to one of Mahler’s most soaring lyrical inspirations and received a duly impassioned rendering. The Scherzo was relentless in its biting, edgy drive, with the conductor effectively underlining the strangeness, as with the weird lowing of the basses.

The long final movement was especially fine, with the music’s energy continually roused only to be felled by the hammer blows–and effective they were, registering with the hard, wooden thunk, Mahler asked for. The existential bleakness of the defeated final pages made chilling impact.

The Grant Park Orchestra was at their considerable best in this performance with notably inspired contributions from the brass and winds.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

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