Gustav Mahler had a long and bountiful career in America as both conductor (he was music director of the New York Philharmonic in the first decade of the 20th century) and composer. Thanks in great part to Bruno Walter and then Leonard Bernstein, Mahler’s music has taken its place in the orchestral repertory. Bernstein was so enamored of the composer, he chose part of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in 1962 to open Lincoln Center, and the Third Symphony to close his own career with the Philharmonic when he retired in 1969.
The problem with playing Mahler symphonies is they require massive orchestras. Massive orchestras cost massive funds. And listening to Mahler is like eating kobe beef. It’s so overwhelming in its richness, much as I adore it, I need rest between servings.
I haven’t had much Mahler in the last year, so it was with great anticipation that I entered the Van Wezel to hear the Sarasota Orchestra (beefed up by other area professionals) in the orchestra’s first performance, ever, of Mahler’s majestic Symphony No. 3.
Doled out in heaping servings of intensity over the course of six movements, this is a monumental score filled with tumultuous harmonies, devastatingly beautiful and lush melodic lines meted out in folk songs and Lieder, emotional contrasts, and climax upon climax upon climax.
If it’s exhausting to hear, imagine what the orchestral players struggle with over the course of some 100 minutes. It’s physically and emotionally some of the most taxing music I know. A chamber contingent from Key Chorale and the superb Sarasota Young Voices made fine impressions in the fourth movement, but alto soloist, Jennifer Hines’ voice lacked vibrato and warmth, while her distortion of vowels, poor German enunciation and occasional musical mishaps made that section of the symphony disappointing.
The orchestra, on the other hand, was at its finest. From the brilliance of the brass to the sonorous strings, this was great Mahler-making. Lief Bjaland drew every ounce of ability from the players, keeping a tight grasp on the loose principals of Viennese tempi. Bernstein and Mahler would have been proud.
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