Gustav Mahler was only 48 when he began to compose his Ninth Symphony in 1908. He should have had a long, creative life ahead of him, but his days were already numbered by a heart ailment; he would be dead within three years.
Was he conscious of that fate? In the original manuscript of the Ninth, on the last pages of the opening and closing movements, Mahler wrote the words "Farewell! Farewell!"
The average age of the musicians in the Peabody Symphony Orchestra who played this valedictory Thursday must be around 20, much too young to have to think about death. Maybe that's one reason the performance was so arresting. To hear Mahler's deep-set emotions, the angst and, eventually, a tentative resignation pouring out from these students was a powerful statement in itself.
There were some rough spots in the execution: The cellos lost control of pitch and cohesiveness at a critical moment in the first movement; the otherwise admirable violins couldn't sustain the high, soft notes at the end of the symphony cleanly; the woodwinds had lapses in articulation or intonation.
Even so, the level of the music-making was remarkably high. When the strings dug into the first, unnervingly agonized measures of the finale, the sound was exceptionally rich, enveloping, urgent. And when the subsequent, downward theme arrived, the one with such a haunting similarity to the old hymn "Abide With Me," those strings only got more urgently expressive.
Much credit for the concert's success goes to conductor Hajim Teri Murai, who communicated so strongly to the ensemble. His grasp of the symphony's structure and appreciation for many of the score's subtleties was sure. If there could have been more individualistic touches in rhythm and phrasing, the conductor's intensity generated a remarkably taut, communicative performance.
Ultimately, the chief pleasure was the maturity and commitment behind the playing, the way these young musicians connected so strongly to Mahler's autumnal, nostalgic, sometimes sardonic reflections. It's too bad the orchestra outnumbered the audience.