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Music review: Carl St.Clair, Pacific Symphony at Segerstrom Hall

November 18, 2011 |  1:06 pm

Gustav Mahler’s emotionally conflicted, musically prophetic Ninth Symphony was once a rarity in the concert hall.  Yet in the span of a little more than a year, Southern California orchestras will have performed it on at least four occasions -– Gustavo Dudamel led the Ninth last January and will reprise it next February, the San Diego Symphony performed it just last week -– and the Pacific Symphony made the Ninth the capstone of its “Departures” trilogy Thursday night at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

Those who came early were treated to actors Nick Ullett and Jenny O’Hara's dramatically charged readings from Mahler’s letters and his wife Alma’s diaries and memoirs (assembled by artistic advisor Joseph Horowitz); Gustav’s bluntly alpha-male ultimatum on what he expected from Alma drew gasps of amazement from this 21st century audience. Another prologue followed in which three songs from “Rückert-Lieder” were performed with a big, rolling timbre by baritone Christòpheren Nomura and pianist Hye-Young Kim, with linking commentary from music director Carl St.Clair.  

DSC_2656 (2)This attempt at total immersion understandably could only scratch the surface of an inexhaustible topic.  Yet it set the table effectively enough, and St.Clair and the symphony gave the Ninth a gratifyingly good ride as a payoff -– well played at mostly comfortable tempos, well integrated in structure with a solid pulse that kept it moving, capable of exploding with anguish and power in the right places.  

Clearly still under the spell of his old mentor, Leonard Bernstein, St.Clair capped a flowing, richly textured finale of strength and optimism with a last page that stretched the dynamics and adagissimo tempo marking as far as he could. You might disagree that the Ninth was Mahler’s farewell testament, for there was a Tenth Symphony -– sketched yet sufficiently formed -– that continued his evolution.  But St.Clair made a good case for the idea of just letting go.


A do-it-yourself Mahler boxed set -- and Happy Birthday, Gustav

Learning to love Gustav Mahler

How I discovered Mahler

-– Richard S. Ginell

Pacific Symphony with Carl St.Clair, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; $25-$185; (714) 755-5799 or

Photos: Top, Carl St.Clair conducts the Pacific Symphony; Nick Ullett and Jenny O’Hara in the pre-concert reading. Credit: Pacific Symphony