Annapolis Symphony puts its heart into Mahler piece

March 10, 1995|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to the Sun

Saturday's Annapolis Symphony concert was one of those occasions where I was filled with admiration for what transpired while at the same time I couldn't help wondering what might have been.

The object of these feelings was the ASO's handling of the extraordinary Fifth Symphony of Gustav Mahler.

Mahler was captivated by German folk poetry, and his song settings of those "Knaben Wunderhorn" poems found their way into several of his early symphonies. But the youthful evocation of nature in his First Symphony and the Alpine sleigh bells of the Fourth were left behind as the composer concocted the intense, thrashing, achingly sublime five movements of his great C minor Symphony.

"The symphony is the sum of all the suffering I have been compelled to endure at the hands of life," Mahler wrote.

What an absorbingly difficult work it is to perform. And I was stunned that the ASO could play this cruelly taxing, endlessly challenging piece as well as it did. From the opening trumpet solo through an array of horn solos and countless sectional declamations, the brass players nailed everything they touched. In fact, the whole orchestra played its heart out for conductor Gisele Ben-Dor, and for Mahler.

This was Ms. Ben-Dor's second go at Mahler in Annapolis, and I've liked her immensely both times. I still think her visceral, deeply felt Fourth Symphony delivered two seasons ago was the best outing of her tenure here. Her Fifth, though perhaps less distinctive, was well-paced and extremely convincing.

Climaxes in the Funeral March were beautifully judged, flags flew triumphantly in the Finale, and the famous Adagietto was dignified, dry-eyed and quite beautiful, more a songful elegy than the tear-stained meditation it often is.

But at many junctures -- notably in movements three and four -- the conductor asked for more than her players could give her. Technical demands are so intense and Mahler's emotional terrain so complex that the musicians simply couldn't grasp it all.

In the tender but kooky waltzes and Landlers of the Scherzo, for example, the players were so busy counting to three in a valiant attempt to keep all those changing meters together that all of the conflicting Mahlerian elements -- elegance, nostalgia, satire, parody, uneasiness -- never really emerged.

The mood swings of the second movement -- anger, rage, bitterness, caustic wit -- also seemed secondary to the exigencies of simply getting the music out in one piece.

In a perfect world, the players would have had more time to solidify their grip on logistical matters so that they could surrender themselves more completely to the emotional firestorms that rage in the music. But, oh, how they played.

So engrossing was the Mahler that I barely remember details of the Bach oboe d'amore concerto performed by visiting soloist Thomas Stacey.

I do recall, though, a lovely, rather cool Sibelius "Swan of Tuonela" that featured the adept, sensitive Mr. Stacey -- principal English horn of the New York Philharmonic -- and some notably gorgeous solo lines from principal cellist Suzanne Orban.

When my swan dies, I'm booking her to play the funeral.

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