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Zander and BPO scale the heights of Mahler’s colossal Third

On Friday night in Symphony Hall, Benjamin Zander led the Boston Philharmonic and gathered choral forces in a rare performance of Mahler’s mighty ode to nature

Benjamin Zander conducts the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, with mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, at Symphony Hall on Friday night.Hilary Scott

“My symphony will be something the world has never heard before!”

So declared Gustav Mahler of his Third Symphony. And while it may sound like the ultimate cliched hyperbole, this time it was actually true.

Indeed, when it came thundering into the world in 1902, spanning almost two hours in length, Mahler’s Third was the longest symphony in existence. The Third is also about existence — not in some Sartrean, black-turtlenecked sense of the word but rather existence as earthly life writ large: the buzzing kingdom of nature in all its Dionysian splendor, including (with one movement apiece) the wonder of wildflowers, the scurrying animal kingdom, the sorrows of humanity, the songs of angels, the love of God.


Composing in a small lakeside cabin in the Austrian alps (which you can still visit today), Mahler summoned the Herculean strength of ego required to create this work in part by imagining himself as merely taking dictation from the wilderness. When his protege Bruno Walter came to visit, Mahler even told him not to waste his time peering at the craggy cliffs. They were already in his score.

On Friday night in Symphony Hall, Benjamin Zander and his Boston Philharmonic Orchestra scaled the summit of Mahler’s Third Symphony, delivering the kind of heartfelt performance this epic work deserves. A large and supportive hometown crowd turned out to cheer the ensemble — and cheer they did at the work’s conclusion in a Mahler-length ovation.

The Philharmonic brings together professional musicians, local students, and devoted amateurs, and this time their ranks were also bolstered by the women of the Chorus Pro Musica (Jamie Kirsch, director) as well as a delegation of boys from Saint Paul’s Choir School in Harvard Square (James Kennerley, director). All of this lent the night a sense of community triumph.


For Zander as a conductor, the nine completed symphonies of Mahler have been a kind of magnetic north across the decades, and this concert pressed into service the insights of years spent studying, reflecting on, and performing this composer’s music. In the work’s gigantic first movement, Zander drew out the elemental energies pulsing within what Mahler called his “Bacchic procession,” in which summer roars to life. His reading tended to emphasize the clarity of the roar above its dramatic effect, though the movement’s final bars had the excitement of a breathless dash. The trombone solos of Gregory Spiridopoulos were exemplary.

The shorter inner movements build upwards beginning with the wildflowers, their dances here rendered with a notably gemütlich gaiety. In the third movement, dedicated to the animals, we first hear the distant voice of humanity as if through their ears. This is the work’s famous posthorn solo, here lofted beautifully from offstage by Andrew Sorg. The effect was duly bewitching. The music of the animals has the purity of a perpetual present tense while the song of the humans has been blessed, perhaps tragically, by a knowledge of past and future. It is tinctured with longing.

The mezzo-soprano soloist of the following movement picks up on this theme through a nocturnally shaded text by Nietzsche addressed to humanity itself. The world is “deeper than the day has thought.” Mahler’s music here brims with compassion, artfully conveyed by vocal soloist Susan Platts, though for this listener, her uniformly fast and tightly coiled vibrato was not ideally matched to the music’s consolatory depths. In the fifth movement, the masks worn by the gathered choral forces muffled their sound but not their projection of character, and indeed the music’s joyful, buoyant qualities reached the audience unimpeded.


Among symphonic slow movements, the adagios of Mahler form their own treasured subspecies. They descend no doubt from the sublime example of Beethoven’s late quartets, only here they have been scaled in direct proportion to the dreams and fears of a modern world Mahler lived long enough to see.

For the finale of the Third, the orchestra left it all on the stage, the music unfolding at a seemingly organic tempo, exuding poise and dignity while building inexorably to the symphony’s colossal close. As the crowd made its appreciation known, Zander waded into the ensemble to single out players and entire sections for bows. Every one of them was well-deserved.


Benjamin Zander, conductor

At Symphony Hall, Friday night

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.