Meymandi Concert Hall was not quite filled to capacity on this Saturday evening. At the beginning and through the 22-minute first movement of the Mahler Sixth Symphony, there assembled some 30 or more late-comers, most delayed 20 to 30 minutes by bridge construction on Interstate 40. Thus they and I got to hear the first movement over the lobby loudspeakers — not optimal, but an interesting listening perspective, nevertheless. I have thought a lot about how to review a concert that has only one piece. Rather than taking it apart movement by movement and section by section, I have decided to step back and take a long-range look, not in great depth or detail but, as it were, a look at the total landscape from where we hear the music in the present. First, what went into this music? Second, how did the performance deliver the music? And third, how do we experience hearing this music on this occasion?

Gustav Mahler was in his early forties while working on his sixth symphony. He was director of the Vienna Court Opera, and though he had resigned as director of the Vienna Philharmonic a couple of years earlier, he was in wide demand as a conductor all over Europe and beyond. His music, mainly consisting of the first five massive symphonies, had gained a following but was not yet hugely successful. He had recently married “the most beautiful woman in Vienna,” Alma Schindler. Their first daughter was the light of Mahler’s life. He was conducting during the concert season and spending his summers in an idyllic setting outside Vienna composing his next symphonies. Life should have been positive, placid, ideal. Why did he choose this time in his life to write the one symphony to which he affixed a specific title, “Tragic”? (The other subtitled symphonies — “The Titan,” “The Resurrection,” etc. — were nicknames attached by others.)

What went into the Sixth Symphony were pastoral scenes, cowbells, the rhythms of children hopping and playing, the cold chill of an Alpine winter, the warm delicious beauty of the young wife he adored, the nagging fear of death, and a lifelong urgent preoccupation with the staggering metaphysical questions of life. The meaning of the symphony centers on three hammer-blows, characterizing the fate of the composer, the fate of all of us. No matter how humble the person or how great the hero, life ends the same way — in death. What went into this symphony were the thoughts of a great composer who understood and managed his musical language well. And certainly, not least, what went into this symphony was the inner life, the personality, of a man who lived through an abusive childhood, who experienced being and feeling an outsider, and who became rather grandiose in his self-concept and demanding of others. This is a difficult and enigmatic work. When Alma saw Gustav playing happily with his daughters, she expressed her perturbation about his writing another song for Kindertotenlieder (Children’s Songs of Death); he replied, in essence, “I do not choose what I compose. What I compose chooses me.” In another instance, he said about all romantic music, “A bit of mystery always remains — even for the creator!

Now, the second question of our musical experience deals with how the music was delivered in this performance. It has been said that no performance should make any more difference than a little salt or pepper in a gourmet dish. Yet, there are well documented horrible performances: an orchestra in over its head, or a conductor’s understanding and interpretation so far off the mark as to distort the composer’s intention. Changing a pizzicato to a marcato may make a passage sound ponderous rather than menacing, for example. Tempos, dynamic markings and many other performance indicators are open to interpretation. Mahler’s Sixth Symphony has many such challenges. It is the only one of the nine completed and the tenth half-completed symphonies that follows closely the classical symphonic sonata form: four movements, repeats, development, and one key dominating throughout. In addition, Mahler always maintained that music was a personal projection from the heart. One might conclude that in this symphony he is employing both the head and the heart. Perhaps the formalism of the structure is intended to reign in the free flow of emotion. A performance that over-emphasizes the formal structure may sound cold and indifferent and leave us untouched. A performance that imbues the work with unchecked emotional expression may sound schmaltzy and trite. Such would turn Mahler’s intended tragedy into melodrama and surely would leave us feeling cheated and unsatisfied.

The stage-filling North Carolina Symphony under the firm, highly respected, wand of Conductor Laureate Gerhardt Zimmermann, was mostly on the mark. The first movement held its balance very well, with not too much despair too soon but clear hints of what was to come. There was enough beauty and light to allow the final movement hammer-blows and closing dirge to fully declare the tragedy in Greek or Biblical terms. The middle two movements, a Scherzo and an Andante, were originally conceived to be played in that order. For the premiere performance, however, Mahler reversed the order and never conducted it in public any other way. Yet the so-called “definitive” edition of the score, published in 1963, places the Scherzo before the Andante, and in some recent recordings it is played this way. Zimmermann got it right, I believe, by following Mahler’s last instinct, placing the Andante prior to the Scherzo. However, there were moments in the Andante where the longing, lonely feelings almost got out of hand. For example, around the celeste and high strings section, the sound got perilously close to kitsch but then recovered quickly enough. Likewise, in the Scherzo, some of the marches bordered on being cute rather than the menacing, graveyard bones I believe Mahler intended. The fourth movement returned to the control of the sonata form. The hammer-blows were not overdone but were just enough to emphasize the hero’s horror. Here again, Zimmermann was right-on by ignoring Mahler’s superstition about the third hammer-blow. It was delivered as a spine-chilling coup de grâce just the way it was first given to the creative spirit of the composer. The closing sequence, with a dirge played by the trombones and tuba, and the final full orchestral crash, with the bass drum (heartbeats) fading away over the shimmering strings, was enough to take anyone’s breath away.    

So, finally, how do we experience hearing this music on this occasion? Is Mahler saying, “Live every day as though it were your last”? Is he saying, “Don’t take life too seriously. You can’t get out of it alive anyway”? Is he saying something more sinister, more despondent? Did he have any idea himself of the answers to the questions he raises? Or is he providing a catharsis that allows us to cleanse ourselves and gain strength to come to grips with the chaos of our own time, our own lives? It seems clear to me that each listener must come to his or her own conclusion. However we answer the great mysteries of life, it surely must be understood that where this music took us tonight was someplace deep, universal, and inexplicably profound.