Gustav Mahler believed a symphony could encompass the entire world. But at the end of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s season grand finale program of the composer’s Symphony No. 3 on Thursday at the Kimmel Center, you wonder whether even he knew how close he came.
More than most Mahler symphonies, this six-movement work requiring chorus and huge orchestra is full of semi-hidden musical alleys that conductors from previous eras knew about but preferred not to explore, possibly for fear of inducing bewilderment among audiences less familiar with the music. That era is past: Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin wasn’t about to short-shrift anything.
The piece is framed by two symphonic pillars — the wildly fragmented first movement representing the randomness of nature’s life force, and the sweeping, lyrical final movement representing ultimate resolution though love. Throughout, the symphony has a hugely diverse cast of musical characters represented by individual solos that arise from all regions of chorus and orchestra.
Listeners can feel adrift because no one character dominates, with the possible exception of the mezzo-soprano soloist. Karen Cargill had the part in this performance, singing the text to Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song” with gravity that never turned ponderous, and then joining the American Boychoir and women of the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir to sing about merry angelic visions. Mahler gave equal time to less heavenly matters: One friend of mine whose music collection didn’t extended beyond Star Wars, Sousa, and Switched-On Classics discovered that the Symphony No. 3 touched all those bases.
Fearlessly, Nézet-Séguin seemed to trust Mahler’s musical architecture to maintain the train of thought, giving each solo time to become anything from a prayer to a soliloquy. The collective force of the Philadelphia Orchestra is well known, but, as the Mahler revealed, a strong-minded individualism is there for the asking among the principal players. Nézet-Séguin also had a balanced sense of extremes: For every ultra-slow tempo, there was an ultra-fast one. The final chord was held for a not-inappropriate eternity.
Though individual events were characterized with a conviction that often told you, “This is exactly the way it should be,” some of the first movement’s quiet passages nearly killed the long-term tension. In all fairness to Nézet-Séguin, the audience was unusually cough-prone and restive. Quite distracting. But overall, he showed how he is drawing performances of increasing specificity from the orchestra. Flutist Jeffrey Khaner, trumpeter David Bilger, and trombonist Nitzan Haroz warrant special recognition, though oboist Richard Woodhams reminded you how much he embodies the soul of the orchestra.
The program is repeated Saturday and Sunday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.