Songs of the Night: Berlin Philharmonic brought Mahler's 7th back to Hill Auditorium


Conductor Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic

Berlin Philharmonic and conductor Kirill Petrenko at an unidentified performance. Photo by Monika Rittershaus.

I’d be shocked if there were a single empty seat in the house last Saturday night.

As people ducked out of the swirling snow flurries of the storm that would blanket the town over the course of the next few hours, the lobby of the 3,000-seat Hill Auditorium began to fill to the brim with eagerly bustling patrons.

And no wonder—it’s not every day that you have the chance to hear what’s arguably the world’s best orchestra perform music by one of history’s best composers.

It’s been six years, almost to the day, since Ann Arbor heard from the Berlin Philharmonic, courtesy of the University Musical Society (UMS). When they last played Hill, to a similarly packed house, Simon Rattle was still at the helm of the orchestra, two years away from stepping down as chief conductor and artistic director, roles he’d held since 2002. I managed to attend one concert out of two that year, and it remains etched in my memory as one of the best orchestral experiences I’ve ever had—a thrilling offering of music from the Second Viennese School and a Brahms symphony that was all conducted, impressively, from memory. 

Saturday’s performance was no less remarkable.

The second of two concerts the orchestra played last weekend—I was out of town for the first, but I was pleased to see a work by contemporary composer Andrew Norman on the program—the evening consisted of a single piece, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, an enigmatic work from 1905 sometimes nicknamed “Song of the Night.” The piece consists of five movements (unusual for a symphony, but not for Mahler), two large ones bookending three smaller ones. Two of these inner movements are titled “Nachtmusik”—night music—and have the spirit of a nocturne, if not the sound. Altogether the structure of the piece is novel, in a way that is at times compelling and at others perplexing.

For that reason, showcasing the 7th is an intriguing choice, but one that the orchestra has made before: In 2016, the UMS concert I was unable to attend featured the work as a staple of Rattle’s final U.S. tour with the ensemble. Even though it’s the least performed and probably least known of Mahler’s symphonies—it has never achieved the fame of the “Resurrection” or “Symphony of a Thousand,” let alone the 5th—the Berlin Philharmonic has continued to spend a great deal of time with the 7th. Last year, it released a recording of it under Rattle’s baton, and this year it’s once again a staple of Berlin Philharmonic's U.S. tour (on which, incidentally, U-M is the only university stop).

The tour is the first time the Philharmonic has appeared in the country since Kirill Petrenko (who himself has a 2021 recording of the piece with his previous orchestra) took over as chief conductor, so the inclusion of the symphony is a bit of continuity from Rattle’s tenure. Nevertheless, the two conductors come across as having very different styles. Whereas Rattle seemed to embody the music physically, demanding very specific effects from the orchestra with his gestures, Petrenko sometimes gave the appearance of facilitating the music rather than directing its flow. At times he seemed to hardly move at all, gently cueing a clarinet entry here, inviting a bass pizzicato there. Of course, with an ensemble of Berlin’s caliber, the musicians can be trusted to shine when left to their own devices, but it wasn’t always visible what specific interpretive elements the conductor was bringing to the table.

Nevertheless, hearing the orchestra was a thrill: The music felt like it was levitating above the orchestra, and the virtuosic artistry of every ensemble member was so clear and vibrant that you felt you could reach out and touch it. The warmth, power, and resonance of the brass section in particular felt like it could bowl you over, and the presence of sound was something I’ve rarely witnessed an orchestra achieve. Petrenko also did a compelling job of revealing the inner lines of the texture, allowing the serpentine wind parts to speak through the sound of the strings, which in recordings of the work often dominate, as well as bringing out the unusual timbral combinations, such as the mandolin and guitar in the fourth movement.

At least some of the credit for this must be given to the famously good acoustics of Hill Auditorium itself, but the remarkable sound of the space can sometimes be a double-edged sword. A case in point: I sometimes found the presence of the brass to be overpowering. While the brass volume was stunning for solo passages—such as the breathtaking tenor horn opening or the French horn solos at the start of movement two—the trumpets, horns, and trombones often covered the rest of the ensemble during tutti sections, at least where I was seated (balcony left, rear).

Mahler’s works are famously long-winded, and the 7th is no exception. After each movement the audience had to take a moment to shuffle in their seats and shake off the last movement, murmuring briefly before settling down for the next section. But one of the most compelling moments in Saturday’s performance was when Petrenko didn’t allow for this murmur to subside before plunging into the opening of the final movement, whose up-tempo music is thunderously announced by the timpani. Having set up the expectation that we would have a moment to breathe after each movement, being yanked back into the music sooner than expected was invigorating. 

The music’s riveting energy kept up throughout the rest of the movement, driving us toward the conclusion as the first movement’s ominous thematic material started to be interjected into the major-keyed material of the 5th until finally the night music of the earlier movements was vanquished by the blistering light of day. As the orchestra struck the final, joyous chord, the audience was instantly on its feet, offering applause nearly as thunderous as the symphony itself. One can only hope we hear from the Berlin Philharmonic again sooner than six years from now.

Dayton Hare is a graduate student in music composition at Yale University and the newsletter editor of the Ann Arbor Observer. He was formerly the managing editor and classical music columnist at The Michigan Daily, and earned a BM in music composition and BA in honors English at the University of Michigan.