I just returned home from a mind-boggling Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performance of Mahler's sixth symphony, conducted by Donald Runnicles. Mahler is a specialty of Runnicles' -- in fact, he wrote his university thesis on the sixth symphony way back in the day. Tonight's performance was nuanced, energetic, and imbued with the conductor's deep knowledge of the work.
When Runnicles took the stage, he turned to the audience instead of the orchestra. Holding a microphone at his chest, the maestro gave a brief background on the piece and proceeded to sketch out for the audience a road map of what was to come. He spoke about structure, singled out important motives, which the orchestra demonstrated, and summarized the feel of each movement. Mahler believed that a symphony should be like the world, Runnicles told the crowd: it must encompass everything.
As soon as Runnicles turned back to the orchestra, he immediately launched into the first of four movements. The piece is unrelenting, in the best way possible, and lasts more than 80 minutes. Dynamics ebb and flow, tonalities shift, but the energy level tonight never wavered. It would be hard to describe it any better than Mahler himself did: this symphony has everything.
The piece seemed to bring out the best in the musicians as well, all 106 of them. Generally, a piece calling for eight french horns would have me worried, but tonight principal horn Brice Andrus assuaged my horn fears by playing with more lyricism than I have ever heard from him. Oboe wunderkind Liz Koch also gave a commendable performance. I should say that for most everyone on stage this evening -- I'm not sure I've heard them play this well in a while. Of course, it helps when they're performing a piece as masterful and awesome as this one.
Unfortunately for people who already have plans tomorrow night, this is a short run of two performances only. It's always a privilege to see Runnicles conduct when he is in town, and this concert is especially not to be missed. The ASO will reprise the concert tomorrow night at 8 p.m. in Symphony Hall.