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A Jacobs Masterworks Concert - SUBSCRIBE NOW

November 11, 12, 13

Jahja Ling, conductor

MAHLER: Symphony No. 9

Music Director Jahja Ling continues the San Diego Symphony’s remarkable journey through the symphonies of Gustav Mahler with the Symphony's first ever performances of Mahler’s final complete symphony, the Ninth. Mahler reaches the zenith of his creative powers in this compact musical reflection on mortality and the meaning of life. Maestro Ling has called a performance led by Leonard Bernstein heard early in Ling’s career “perhaps the most moving musical experience of my life.”

Click here to read the U-T's evocative review of Friday's Mahler's Ninth concert performance!

Click here to listen to Jahja Ling talk about Leonard Bernstein and Mahler's Ninth Symphony on XLNC 104.9FM, plus long excerpts from the Ninth!


Recent reviews of Jahja Ling conducting music of Gustav Mahler:

“Jahja Ling offered an interpretation of Mahler that was compelling in overview and in detail.” –Pittsburgh Tribune

“Jahja led a remarkable performance last night, the most beautifully played performance of Mahler’s First that this listener can recall…The audience greeted conductor Jahja Ling and players with a gladiatorial roar and a standing O.”  –The Boston Globe

 “His conducting style offered details while his mind concerned itself with the big picture. All combined for a memorable Mahler.” – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 will go down as one of Ling’s greatest achievements.” –The Plain Dealer

“As far as interpretation goes, this was the best Mahler Third I have ever heard—on records or in the concert hall.”  –American Record Guide 


Symphony No. 9


Born July 7, 1860, Kalischt, Bohemia

Died May 18, 1911, Vienna


            In 1907 Gustav Mahler seemed blessed by fortune: he had been director of the Vienna Opera for ten years, he was a composer whose music had passionate admirers, and he was the happily-married father of two small girls. Yet within the space of a few weeks, that world shattered around him. After a decade of brilliant success–and vicious infighting–Mahler resigned as director of the Opera. On a family vacation in June, his 4-year-old daughter Maria developed scarlet fever and died after two horrifying weeks. His wife collapsed, and the doctor brought in to care for her had a look at Mahler and made a deadly discovery–the composer had a heart lesion that would almost certainly prove fatal. Within weeks, Mahler had lost his entire world: his position, a child, and his own health. His doctors counseled rest to conserve his strength, but Mahler ignored their advice, taking over the Metropolitan Opera in New York and later the New York Philharmonic.

            In the summer of 1909, Mahler took his wife and daughter Anna to the small town of Toblach in a mountain valley high in the Tyrol.   His wife reported that he could be morose, consumed by thoughts of death: “We were afraid of everything now. He was always stopping on a walk to feel his pulse and he often asked me to listen to his heart and see whether the beat was clear or rapid or calm . . . His steps and pulse-beats were numbered and his life a torment. Every excursion, every attempt at distraction was a failure.” Yet at the same time Mahler could feel a savage pleasure in being alive. To a friend he wrote: “I feel marvelous here! To be able to sit working by the open window, and breathing the air, the trees and flowers all the time–this is a delight I have never known till now . . . I feel myself getting better every minute.” It was under these conditions, working in a small cottage in the woods, that Mahler began his Ninth Symphony in the summer of 1909, and he completed the score the following April 1 in New York City. But he did not live to hear a note of this music. Mahler died of heart failure in May 1911, over a year before his disciple Bruno Walter led the first performance.

            The structure of the Ninth Symphony is unusual: two large outer movements, both slow and expressive, frame two shorter inner movements, both faster and somewhat sardonic in tone. The opening Andante comodo (“Moving at a comfortable tempo”) is one of Mahler’s finest movements. The young composer Alban Berg wrote to his wife:

Once again I have played through the score of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: the first movement is the most heavenly thing Mahler ever wrote. It is the expression of an exceptional fondness for this earth, the longing to live in peace on it, to enjoy nature to its depth–before death comes.

            For he comes irresistibly. The whole movement is permeated by premonitions of death. Again and again it crops up . . . most potently of course in the colossal passage where this premonition becomes certainty, where in the midst of . . . almost painful joy in life, Death itself is announced mit höchster Gewalt [“with the utmost violence”].

            This thirty-minute movement takes the listener on a shattering journey, ranging from the nostalgic and bittersweet (at one point in the manuscript Mahler scrawled “O vanished days of youth! O scattered love!”) to moments of cataclysm punctuated by violence and funeral marches. Mahler’s method is masterly: very quietly he presents almost all his thematic material in the first few moments.   Some have felt that the stumbling, murmuring rhythm at the very beginning is the sound of Mahler’s own arhythmic heartbeat, and the calmly-singing main theme–announced by the second violins–contains the thematic cell of the symphony, the interval of the falling major second. Mahler borrowed this falling interval from Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata, Op. 81a, and that falling two-note pattern repeats throughout this movement–the music seems to say again and again “Leb wohl! Leb Wohl!”: “Farewell! Farewell!”

            Structurally, the movement is a long crescendo. It passes through three climaxes, each of increasing power, and the last is the “colossal passage” Berg refers to–from exultant heights, the music plunges downward and explodes “with the utmost violence.” Out of the stunned aftermath a dark funeral march grows to a climax, then subsides as a flute solo sings gently (Mahler marks the part Schwebend: “Floating”). After all its agony, this movement ends in radiant calm.

            The mood changes sharply in the second movement, which is a sequence of dances. Mahler asks that it be “In the tempo of a comfortable ländler,” but then specifies that it should be “Somewhat clumsy and rather rough.” Once again, he presents his material in the first few bars: a little clarinet tune gives way to the swaggering ländler from the second violins. But the clarinet tune will dominate this movement, returning in many forms–quickly it becomes a robust waltz, and just as quickly it is transformed into a wild rustic dance, full of the sound of banging pans and blatting winds. The interval of the falling second, so important in the opening movement, returns here as this movement pitches between unbridled energy and languorous sensuality; it winks out on the same thematic fragments heard in its first moments.

            The third movement is a blistering rondo. Mahler makes its character clear by calling it a Burleske and marking the score “Very fast. Very defiant.” The trumpet’s three-note opening call rings throughout, and the music offers some of the thorniest (and most brilliant) counterpoint Mahler ever wrote. Along the way come episodes of haunting beauty, many based on the figure of a slow turn, and it is characteristic that these melodies are then savaged–what had been beautiful is suddenly smeared and made ugly and cast aside. The music resumes its frantic opening pace and races to the powerful close, where the opening three-note figure hammers the movement into silence.

            The Ninth Symphony concludes with a long Adagio that is–structurally and emotionally–a counterpart to the opening movement. After a soaring two-measure introduction, strings sing a hymn-like main theme that Mahler marks molto espressivo. But the wonder is that this glowing melody is simply a transformation of the jaunty little clarinet tune that had opened the second movement; now–far from its roots–it sings with radiant calm. Soon Mahler takes up the turn-figure that had appeared in so many forms in the third movement, and–at a very slow tempo–that figure now yields unimaginable riches: what had been sardonic a few moments before now burns with a rapt beauty.

            The true second subject of this movement feels lugubrious, dark, threatening: violins sound a quiet high A, and–four octaves below–cellos and contrabassoon make a sinister climb out of the murky depths; it is as if death has intruded into this world one more time. Over a long span that alternates interludes of great delicacy (some evocative of the atmosphere of Das Lied von der Erde) with moments of cataclysm, Mahler builds to a great climax, and the music falls away to conclude in peace. If the symphonic process is one of building large structures from small bits, Mahler reverses that over the final pages of the Ninth Symphony. This long movement gradually breaks down into component bits, and these in turn dissolve into nothingness as this music seems to move outside time. The last page of the score (only 27 measures) takes nearly four minutes to traverse, and Mahler marks the final measure ersterbend: “dying away.” In the words of Bruno Walter, “with the conclusion, the clouds dissolve in the blue of Heaven.”

-Program notes by Eric Bromberger



Maestor Ling: “In 1979, as a student conductor at Tanglewood, I heard Lenny (Bernstein, of course) conduct the Mahler Ninth with the Boston Symphony, and that was the first time I heard this overwhelming work. I was never before moved by any piece of music like I was then, and after that I began studying Mahler with him. The Ninth Symphony touched my soul and my heart. It’s so personal to me. I didn’t attempt to conduct it for ten years after that performance. I had to digest it first, to get it inside of me. We’ve done the first six Mahler symphonies here so far, and now the orchestra is really ready for this piece.”

            Mahler’s great Ninth Symphony was initially programmed by Yoav Talmi and the San Diego Symphony for the 1995-96 season. It had never been played by the orchestra before. (Only the Los Angeles Philharmonic, about twenty years earlier, had performed it once during their seasons here in San Diego, under the guest direction of Sir John Barbirolli.) Regrettably, the financial difficulties of the orchestra in those dark years resulted in the cancellation of the Ninth’s planned 1996 presentation along with the rest of that season; and so the current program actually represents the first Mahler’s Ninth performances by this orchestra!

-Dr. Melvin G. Goldzband, Symphony Archivist


November 11 - November 13, 2011

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