The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and its music director, Benjamin Zander, spent last season exploring the music of Gustav Mahler, and the first concert of their new season was a coda to that, offering works from the end of Mahler's musical life. These eloquent pieces, largely about saying goodbye, made a fitting bookend for Zander's Mahler foray. If only the farewell had resonated as it should have.
The concert began with the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony. From its opening -- an unaccompanied viola line of indeterminate harmony -- through the massively dissonant chord that serves as its climax, this is Mahler breaking into uncharted technical and expressive realms, melding late romanticism with passages of cutting-edge atonality.
Vastly different in character is the song cycle "Das Lied von der Erde" ("The Song of the Earth"), which occupied the second half of the program. Here the aging and disconsolate composer confronted loss and mortality by setting translations of Chinese poems to some of the most affecting music he would ever write.
The first five movements explore life's joys and bitterness by turns; the last one, "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell") lasts a full half-hour and is the transcendence of what has come before, both thematically and musically, drifting eventually into peaceful silence.
In an age dominated by recordings, we sometimes forget how difficult these works are to perform: They demand not only eloquence but musical execution of the highest order. Sadly, the latter was rarely evident on Thursday. Indeed, the evening often sounded more like a rehearsal than a public concert. The violins were frequently scattered and out of tune, and numerous instrumental entrances were smudged and imprecise. Nearly every movement was punctuated by moments that sounded underrehearsed, or in a few cases completely uncoordinated. Though Zander emphasized the chamberlike nature of "Das Lied" in his preconcert talk, the communication and interaction that chamber music requires were often absent.
Mezzo-soprano Gigi Mitchell-Velasco was one of the evening's bright spots. She has a dark and opulent voice, and though her delivery and phrasing occasionally sounded mannered, she brought intensity and passion to her songs. She was at her best in the recitatives of "Der Abschied," which also featured outstanding contributions from flutist Kathleen Boyd and oboist Peggy Pearson.
Those, as well as the repeated gentle sighs of "Ewig" ("Eternally") that close the piece, came closest to redeeming the evening.
Tenor Thomas Young was far less satisfying. He gave the impression of never having sung the piece before, and never having prepared to sing it, either. Young spent much of his three songs staring at his score, and he flubbed one of his entrances badly. He managed to hit his notes but brought neither nuance nor understanding to the music.
As Zander often acknowledges, Mahler has played a significant role in his own career and that of his orchestra, and their journey through his music was a worthy one. But after Thursday's concert, taking leave of the composer seems like a good idea.