Mahler Fifth Symphony a Heady Journey

Cellist Ralph Kirshbaum (photo by J. Henry Fair)

Cellist Ralph Kirshbaum (photo by J. Henry Fair)

Mention the name Gustav Mahler, and it’s hard not to think of resurrection. From his popular Second Symphony—titled the “Resurrection Symphony”—to the rebith of the composer’s musical reputation after World War II, this is a potent Mahler leitmotif.

Hearing the San Diego Symphony under Music Director Jahja Ling perform Mahler’s Fifth Symphony Saturday (Nov. 3), I thought about the local orchestra’s own resurrection.

In the last decades of the 20th century, the San Diego Symphony lost several complete seasons while languishing in bankruptcy. With significant generous underwriting from Irwin and Joan Jacobs and the subsequent hiring of Ling as Music Director, the orchestra has made a significant cultural comeback, and this Mahler Fifth Symphony performance may be read as a signpost in its resurrected life.

Over the last five seasons, Ling has included a major Mahler work each fall, a statement of the orchestra’s muscle and maturity. Like last week’s traversal of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, this Mahler V affirmed the orchestra’s confident grasp of complex textures and its composure in more reflective moods. Because the winds still rule stage, mighty climaxes show the players’ best hand, but the strings have made definite positive strides. [box] Ling has included a major Mahler work each fall, a statement of the orchestra’s muscle and maturity. [/box]

The Fifth began murkily—what should have been mysteriously anticipatory sounded merely tentative—but once the funeral march commenced, everything came into focus. Ling worked diligently over the stormy second movement, prodding heady climaxes but allowing the light to radiate in quiet moments. The cello section stood out in this movement and in the lush Adagietto for sensitive, soulful thematic offerings.

The Scherzo of the Fifth is a gigantic haunted house version of the traditional symphonic scherzo, and Ling gave every section a chance to frolick. Who could not relish the clarinets’ crazed squeals, the braying brasses and the flutes’ playful antics? If the Adagietto provided the evening’s most sublime moment, the Scherzo lavished the greatest sonic rewards.

Ling and crew saved the most polished and compelling playing for the finale, purposefully layering its broad, hopeful climax. I[php snippet=1] am not about to give up my burnished memory of the Chicago Symphony’s Mahler V played here on tour many years ago under the late Georg Solti, but this San Diego performance reminded me of how thrilling this symphony can be.

Ling opened the program with the Haydn D Major Cello Concerto, a well-proportioned, tuneful prelude to the Mahler adventure. Overall, the orchestra gave a more refined and cogent reading of this concerto, a great leap forward over their wrestling with Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 last month.

But I found cello soloist Ralph Kirshbaum not up to his assignment, in particular his unfortunate out of tune upper range playing in the opening movement. Over the years, Kirshbaum has been a reliable solo and ensemble performer at La Jolla SummerFest, but either he was having a bad night or his control of the instrument is waning.

He still commands a warm, glowing sonority in his lower range, but every time he ascended, his security felt endangered. Let us hope this was but a momentary lapse.

[box] San Diego Symphony at Copley Symphony Hall, 750 “B” St., San Diego 92101

Next Jacobs Masterworks offerings: Guest conductor Christof Perick leads Strauss, Goldmark and Beethoven Nov. 16 & 17 at 8:00 p.m. and Nov. 18 at 2:00 p.m.

Tickets: 619.235-0804;[/box]






  1. David Gregson on November 5, 2012 at 11:10 am

    I too recall that amazing Mahler Fifth at Civic Theatre years and years ago. One of the great concerts I’ve heard in my lifetime. // To me, Ling has no feeling for Haydn at all. I did not like this performance, nor the recent one of the Haydn Symphony 102. When the concerto began, I was amazed at Kirshbaum’s faulty intonation. I thought maybe there had been some last-minute substitution. I could not see him clearly from the mezzanine. // I have nothing to add to your accurate account of the Mahler Fifth. The fact I was not thrilled by it is an entirely subjective reaction; I may have been hearing way too much well-played Mahler this year. 2012 began with the LA Phil’s Mahler project, and then I have picked up a few more Mahler performances along the way — including a Sixth at Carnegie Hall, the NY Phil under Gilbert. That said, I really do not tire of hearing these works performed live.

  2. Welton Jones on November 6, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    I was at that Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert too, thrilled by the amazing trumpet-plating of the legendary Adolph Herseth and by Solti’s command and understanding. Also, it was a prized memory of my late colleague at the SAN DIEGO UNION, Donald Dierks, who had heard the CSO frequently. Amazing how everything can come together sometimes and make a deathless memory for so many.

    As for Kirschbaum and the Haydn concerto, I can’t remember having ever heard less-interesting cello work by a professional player. As Jim Chute noted in the UT, it wasn’t until he played alone (the Bach sarabande he used for the unsolicited encore) that he sounded in tune.

  3. Kraig Cavanaugh on November 15, 2012 at 8:54 am

    I believe the overall, better refinement of the performance was due to Ling managing to herd…I mean conduct the violin section , which he so rarely pays any attention.

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