If you glance at page 114 of the 2016 Eastern Music Festival (EMF) program guide you will see a listing of the student participants.  It’s probably no big surprise to see that nearly all of them are in their teens and early twenties at the “oldest,” but it is still somewhat shocking to hear such across-the-board virtuosity, depth of interpretation and musical intelligence in these young musicians. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Young Artists Orchestra, one of EMF’s two full-sized student ensembles. This is not just a handful of the handpicked top-echelon students augmented by faculty and/or other professionals. This is all student, all the time, for all works, and year after year the results continue to astound me.

While performances of J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (more commonly referred to simply as Bach’s “Double Concerto”) is quite commonplace for young ensembles, it is what happens after intermission that is anything but common: a complete performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in D – his final complete symphony. I suppose that someone could conceivably stretch some far-flung relationship between the two, but such artifice is unnecessary.

It’s always a nice change-of-pace, for both musicians and the audience, to watch the players perform standing up – except, of course, for those chair-bound cellists. A subset of the strings of the larger orchestra joined violin soloists John Fadial and Qing Li in a spirited rendition of the well-known Bach Double. This can easily be done – and often is – sans conductor, but here we had resident conductor Grant Cooper leading the small group. In marked contrast to how he conducted the mammoth forces of Mahler, here he mostly shaped phrases without a baton and at times seemed to be motionless. At Li’s initial solo entrance, she tried to pull back the tempo and there continued to be an undertone of rhythmic conflict among soloists, ensemble and conductor. The slow movement was ravishing as all parties brought out the exquisite beauty of one of Bach’s most romantic melodies. The finale was a celebration of contrapuntal complexity that allowed the soloists to show off their prodigious technique as well as an innate expression of joy and exuberance.  Mark that feeling well, because the next eighty minutes, for the most part, would be devoid of any comparable emotion.

So let’s get right to the core of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: it is nearly universally considered to be a rumination on death, equally the composer’s recent experience with his four year daughter’s passing as well as a medical diagnosis that his heart was in very bad shape. So, for this particular performance, a valid initial question might be whether one hundred or so teenagers, no matter how musically proficient they are, would be able to communicate the life experiences and emotional yearning that accompanies end-of-life realizations? The answer, surprisingly, was a resounding yes – of course aided by the wisdom and maturity of conductor Cooper.

Completed in 1910, just a year before Mahler’s untimely yet not surprising death, the Ninth Symphony made its premiere in 1912 with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Written in four movements, without any vocal or choral component, its outer movements are generally slow while the middle two that have faster tempos, particularly the Rondo-Burleske third movement. It’s worth noting the “curse of the ninth” legend that accompanies this symphony since it has been held that great symphonists have tried to avoid ending their career with a ninth symphony to avoid the fate of Beethoven. Despite Mahler beginning a named tenth, plus asserting that his Das Lied von der Erde followed his eight and was subtitled “a symphony for contralto, tenor and orchestra,” his life did in fact end after his last completed symphony named as “No. 9.”

The opening movement, Andante comodo, is not quite as slow as many program notes proclaim and has many moments of increased tempi and cascades of emotional climaxes and rapid respites. If it sounds sexual, well, that would be in the ear of the beholder but I certainly wouldn’t argue with that. Conductor Cooper, now wielding a baton, was masterful with a “less is more” approach to leading these young musicians. It was clear that he would not be the focal point but that every movement was in the service of Mahler’s score and helping these musicians realize the myriad profound emotions despite their immaturity in years. It was an understated yet masterful and virtuosic turn on the podium. The only possible criticism is that at times he did not get the violin sections to play loud enough, especially when the brass were also playing.

Make no mistake that it takes remarkable musical skills and a level of orchestral excellence to play any Mahler symphony. But, generally, one would not describe Mahler’s parts as flashy or showing off technique for technique’s sake. However, in the third movement, that is clearly not the case for both the musicians and the composer. In the first fifteen seconds alone there is enough material for a dozen fugues. Mahler composed such magnificent and complex contrapuntal parts that even Bach would be envious. It was played at such a fast, but cleanly articulated tempo, that mouths were agape throughout the sparse audience.

Descriptions of Mahler’s 9th have the total timing varying from 68-90 minutes – that’s quite a range. While I did not time it, Cooper took the final Adagio at more like an andante tempo and it fit beautifully. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive but it actually is more difficult to play slow and softly than, say, like the third movement. All the musicians played with a level of maturity well beyond their years in this famous movement that is a musical depiction of death. The ending had the music slowly and almost imperceptibly dissipate into nothingness as if Mahler could envision his final exhalation rising and scattering into the cosmos. Cooper and his musicians gave this a wonderful theatrical flair as all the players remained statuesquely still while the conductor’s arms descended with an unhurried slowness that seemed to fight against the dying of the light.