Review: New Jersey Symphony Performs MAHLER 3RD at NJPAC

Musical Director Zhang performs her all time favorite work.

By: Mar. 08, 2023
Review: New Jersey Symphony Performs MAHLER 3RD at NJPAC
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Review: New Jersey Symphony Performs MAHLER 3RD at NJPAC

"Just imagine a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world-one is, so to speak, only an instrument, played on by the universe...My symphony will be something the like of which the world has never yet heard!...In it the whole of nature finds a voice." - Wrote Mahler In a letter to the soprano, Anna von Mildenburg.

NJ Symphony musical director, Xian Zhang has stated often that the Mahler 3rd is her favorite work of all time. This was evident from the instant she bounded up onto the platform until the time she stepped down some 99 minutes later. During the time in between, she led her orchestra through a titanic performance of the epic Mahler 3rd.

Zhang seemed to revel in the moment just before the baton dropped to initiate the journey, and from the first down beat on, she never let the energy or tension drop.

There are few moments in the entire classical canon quite as auspiciously commanding as the eight unison horns that open the symphony. The first movement (or part one of the symphony's two parts) built steadily, juxtaposing the various approaching states of life and humanity. Originally titled "Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In" (before Mahler dispensed with a program for the work) the first movement is practically a symphony in itself, covering over 30 minutes and ranging from triumphant to lamenting to genuinely terrifying.

Special kudos to the mournful, yet regal splendor of trombonist Vernon Post's solos in the first movement, whose doleful playing conveyed a solitary sense of ragged beauty. Zhang's exceptional command of dynamics was particularly evident in the euphoric presto at the close of the movement.

From my seat (about halfway back in the orchestra) it was difficult to hear the oboe solo at the start of the second movement. The woodwinds in generally felt a bit underpowered, whether by design or geography, the brass and strings tended to overpower them throughout the piece.

That was a shame because it was immediately clear that Zhang possesses a unique understanding of the ideas behind the notes, and expressed them with passionate detail. Her instinctive feeling for Mahler's tempo rubato was natural and unaffected, allowing her to shape gorgeous, majestic phrases.

Review: New Jersey Symphony Performs MAHLER 3RD at NJPAC

The mezzo solo, the weltschmerz-laden reading of Nietzsche's Midnight Song, was ravishing, with mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor displaying creamy smooth tone, paired with crystal clear diction.

As the Midnight song faded into silence, the joyful sound of a children's choir broke the stillness. The choir, placed strategically in the third tier, provided an immersive effect. Regrettably, their sound projected towards the stage rather than the audience. Audience members on the sides and near the front probably heard them quite well, but from our seats on the floor, they are largely inaudible.

As the final strains of the shimmering, angelic bell tones dissipated, the final movement began and withing seconds, all that came before seemed to fade away into possibly the greatest adagio ever written. Broad, nuanced and spaciously paced, Zhang brought to a conclusion the epic journey of transformation in astonishing fashion.

Here's hoping the NJ Symphony continues the Mahler journey!

Peter Danish

New Jersey Symphony | Xian Zhang conductor | Kelley O'Connor mezzo-soprano

Montclair State University Prima Voce | Heather J. Buchanan, director

Starry Arts Group Children's Chorus | Rebecca Shen, Director