So vast is the expanse of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, so audience-
involving its outlay of violent, palpable emotion, that any performance that
gets through the work unscathed is bound to seem at least skillful. Even so,
the performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Kurt Sanderling on
Thursday night must rank as an extraordinary achievement. The music — 85 minutes of heaven-storming, demoniacal grimacing and, at the
end, sublime, eloquent leave-taking — is as challenging as anything in the
symphonic repertory, to conductor and audience alike. As at previous
performances of the work in recent years, the Music Center audience was not
entirely equal to the challenge; there were some premature departures. The forces onstage were more than equal, however. Search your memories as you
may, it will be hard to remember playing as poised, as beautifully balanced,
as the final five-or-so minutes of Mahler’s finale, with the sublime last
melody working its way through the strings, ever softer until sound and
silence become a single unity. Ungainly on the podium as he is, with his
baton clumsily held as if it might turn and attack, Sanderling was
nevertheless the shaping force in a supremely communicative performance.
Those who question the high qualities of this orchestra under proper
circumstances are invited to sample memories of this one experience. Starting the program there was an authentic and endearing novelty: early Haydn
(the Symphony No. 39), charming, witty and full of beans, a symphony in G
minor that even ended in that key, against the common practice of always
coming around to a “happy ending” in the major. With music like this, the German symphonic tradition began; with the Mahler
Ninth, it came to its close. At both ends, Sanderling reigned supreme.