Conducting Laureate Shows Flair For Mahler With Third Symphony

Singaporean conductor Kahchun Wong, winner of the 2016 Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, led the Seattle Symphony in Mahler’s Third Symphony. (Photos by Carlin Ma)

SEATTLE — In 2016, Kahchun Wong’s final hurdle before taking first prize in the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition was to win the jury over with his interpretation of Mahler’s Third Symphony. The conductor reaffirmed his special connection to the work that helped launch his international career during his return engagement with the Seattle Symphony. In the first of three performances of Mahler’s Third, on April 11, Wong reached and sustained a peak of mutual understanding with the musicians for which our era seems to have lost the vocabulary — words like “sublime” having long since gone out of style.

Born in Singapore, the 37-year-old Wong has been building a career based primarily in Asia and Europe. He serves as chief conductor of the Japan Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the Dresdner Philharmonie; in September, he will take the reins of the Hallé Orchestra. To date, Wong has appeared with only a few U.S. orchestras, but the Mahler concerts mark his second “blockbuster” collaboration with Seattle Symphony this season — and his fourth since the organization has been in search of a music director. I experienced Wong’s work with the orchestra for the first time last December, when he made an unusually deep impression with the orchestra’s annual season finale of Beethoven Ninth concerts.

In Mahler’s even vaster Symphony No. 3 in D minor, which occupied the entire program, Wong showed a similar knack for using gestures to mime whatever affect was desired. He switched seamlessly (almost like a prestidigitator) from using a baton to his bare hands, depending on the kind of sound he was shaping. He coaxed small but significant adjustments in the players’ phrasing and balance, as in the post horn interludes of the third movement (about which more below). Rather than an architect’s imposition of an a priori design, the impression was of a collaborative effort achieved through organically refining and intensifying the expression.

French-Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne was the soloist.

Leaning on Mahler’s original descriptions of the work (though the composer later suppressed them), discussion of the Third often resorts to evolutionary terms, such that each of its six movements is said to focus on a successively higher manifestation of the Life Force, culminating in a radiant contemplation of love itself as the power that drives the cosmos. For many, the final Adagio is the aesthetic pinnacle of the Third as well. It clearly benefited, in this performance, from the most consistently inspired playing of the evening as Wong and the orchestra together sustained a sense of communal ecstasy. 

A major interpretive challenge posed by the Third is how to orient this “evolution.” Maher’s unusual design expands the first movement into a miniature epic of its own. It presents a formidable counterweight to this destination-focused concept, in which the resolution of the Third’s fundamental conflicts and enigmas is reserved for the final Adagio.

In more practical terms, shaping the first movement’s sprawl is no easy task — especially when it comes to the long, pause-punctuated stretches in the lower depths. The opening “wake-up call” issued by Mahler’s panoply of eight horns began with an anemic upbeat and lacked the exciting sense of thrust that should set the whole panorama in motion. Wong emphasized the effect of new colors and themes appearing in the soundscape, but the stretches between meandered, often feeling like a detour.

Along with some problems of coordination, the first movement seemed in search of an overarching perspective but, to my ears, didn’t venture much beyond evoking a forbiddingly alien, Jurassic landscape. What I missed most of all was a heightened tension and urgency in the marches, a feeling of being on the verge of going off the rails — of stopping just short of succumbing to chaos. Still, Wong relished the kaleidoscopic variety of Mahler’s score, allowing individual musicians lots of expressive leeway in their solos. Principal trombone Ko-ichiro Yamamoto brought out a darkly brooding tone in his lingering solos, while concertmaster Helen Kim flavored the solo violin’s flights with a slightly citric tinge. 

If the first movement failed to take satisfying shape overall, Wong and the SSO seemed to find their collective voice in the “flowers” movement, proceeding from that point on at a very high level. Such attention to the score’s lush, colorful details, with inner voices so present and beautifully balanced, is not to be taken for granted. (After deleting the Blumine movement from the earlier version of his First Symphony, Mahler at last found a position for his riff on the pastoral topos here.)

Mahler’s Third Symphony occupied the entire program.

Wong activated the transitions of meter and tempo in the second and third movements with elegant grace. To execute the extensive post horn solos in the latter “as if from far away,” as Mahler directs, principal trumpet David Gordon played a rotary instrument from the third-tier vestibule on house right. The framing of these episodes suggests some sort of reminiscence and gives them an added layer of significance, which Wong heightened through the subtlest gestures of coordination and shading. 

I’ve never heard the note of bittersweet enchantment conveyed so touchingly in a live performance. Nor have I seen a trumpeter as the first to be singled out for praise after the performance: Wong (who himself started out as a trumpet player) walked up to Gordon to embrace him. On one level, because it contains so many passages of solo spotlighting, the Third brings to mind a concerto for orchestra. Special kudos go as well to principal horn Jeffrey Fair and Eric Schweikert and Michael Werner (timpani and percussion).

The third movement’s climactic cry of panic carried genuine terror and provided the necessary fulcrum point to vault into the remainder of the work, beginning with the entrance of the human voice. Though a touch underpowered, the French-Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne gave an urgent expressiveness to the Nietzsche text as Wong elicited the music’s parallels to the deep-lying cradle song of the first movement. Mary Lynch VanderKolk’s oboe glissandos resembled an echoing nightbird, underscoring the atmosphere of nocturnal mystery — a further evolution, perhaps, of the dawning consciousness first signaled by the post horn.

Following on this midnight of doubt, the angels’ song of the fifth movement can come across as shockingly as if Mahler had juxtaposed a prayer recited by Mother Theresa with a debate featuring Richard Dawkins. Wong introduced the chorus — brightly sung by the excellent Northwest Boychoir and the Seattle Symphony Chorale’s upper voices — as another of the Third’s wakeup calls. The rhythmic drive of this music carried subliminal memories of the rousing pagan parades in the first movement, but with freshly coruscating, joy-infused colors.

Wong has obviously internalized his Mahler to the point that he scarcely needed to refer to the copy of the score that lay open in front of him.

Mahler’s closing Adagio defeats any attempt not only to describe it but to characterize the reactions it triggers. Suffice it to say that Wong’s molding of the arc of the movement, his choice of tempo — on the brisk side, as throughout the Third in general — and his balancing of the masses of sound from the different instrumental choirs encouraged the finest, most deeply moving performance I’ve heard from the orchestra all season. The intensity of feeling became so overwhelming that an unexpected moment of comic relief proved quite welcome when several percussion players stealthily mounted the steps far upstage, each armed with a pair of cymbals, for one huge outburst near the end. (Please let no one trip!)

Wong has obviously internalized his Mahler to the point that he scarcely needed to refer to the copy of the score that lay open in front of him. His intakes of breath even became audible at moments in the Adagio — organic counterparts to his upbeats, revealing how naturally he breathes this music. For once, the audience held its applause long enough to allow Wong to wring every ounce of majesty from the final D major chord.