Transcendent Mahler with Peter Oundjian and the St. Louis Symphony

Peter Oundjian

It was more than a moment, actually, since "transcendent beauty" describes pretty much all of guest conductor Peter Oundjian's interpretation of Mahler's Symphony No. 9, which clocked in at around eighty minutes. Written towards the end of the composer's life (he died within two years of completing it and never heard it performed), the Ninth is often seen as Mahler's farewell to life. Mr. Oundjian's impassioned reading certainly honored that sense of departure, but did so in a way that suggested calm acceptance more than resigned despair.
That may not be a majority view of the work these days. The predominant idea of the Mahler Ninth for the past several decades seems to have been colored by Leonard Bernstein's contention, in the fifth of a series of six 1973 lectures at Harvard, that Mahler was anticipating not only his own death but the "death of music itself." Bernstein's own performance with the Vienna Philharmonic reflects that, wringing every last bit of angst out of the music. But, as Tom Service notes in a 2014 article for The Guardian, "there is another way of thinking about this music, and there's another way of conducting it, hearing it, and experiencing it. It turns on whether you think of this piece as a hymn to the end of all things, or instead, as an ultimately affirmative love-song to life and to mortality."
To my ears, Mr. Oundjian's approach was closer to the "ultimately affirmative" end of the spectrum, beginning with a first movement that had a strong rhythmic pulse and a kind of lilting lyricism that contrasted well with the first of the three massive orchestral climaxes the punctuate the rest of the movement. The tempo marking is Andante comodo, and Mr. Oundjian's tempo choices seemed to honor the fact that "andante" literally means "at a walking tempo." The orchestra played beautifully, with admirable solo moments such as the lovely duet with Principal Flute Mark Sparks and Principal Horn Roger Kaza that recalls Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony. Read the full review here