Difficult symphony, fearless orchestra

February 06, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Perhaps the second most wonderful thing about being young is being slow to recognize danger or difficultly. That's surely one reason why the battle of the skies in World War II was won putting American teen-agers in fighter planes. It must also have been a factor in the convincing performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 6 that the Peabody Symphony Orchestra gave Saturday evening in Friedberg Concert Hall.

Under the baton of their music director, Hajime Teri Murai, the young musicians performed this fiercely difficult work, the most tragic in the Mahler canon, with energy, stamina and accuracy that would have made a professional orchestra proud.

The symphony's outer movements stamped convincingly; the brass whooped sonorously in the second-movement scherzo; and the slow movement featured warm, flowing playing. Much of the praise for the performance must go to Murai. When this listener arrived in Baltimore 10 years ago, the Peabody Conservatory was incapable of putting together an orchestra that could perform music this difficult so well. In the five years since his appointment as director of the conservatory's orchestral activites, Murai has raised the level of performance.

He has also raised the level of his own skills. He now knows better, for example, how to control the sound of a large orchestra performing loud music in as harsh-sounding a space as Friedberg. And he has learned how to bank his fires, building to a climax instead of exploding at the gate as he once did.

Saturday's Mahler Sixth demonstrated that Murai also has a much better idea of what a student orchestra can and cannot do. That is, perhaps, why he paced the work rather quickly and without indulging in Mahlerian rubatos; without the opportunities for interpretive niceties more flexible tempos make possible, there were fewer chances for the performance to go awry.

This led to certain drawbacks. A measure of monotony in tempo pTC eliminated the possibility of greater refinement and variety of expression. There was not, for example, enough contrast between the almost jubilant conclusion of the first-movement march and its sinister resumption in the scherzo. Moreover, the bottomless depths of nostalgia in the heartbreaking slow movement were left relatively unsounded.

But the Peabody musicians, many of whom will go on to play in professional orchestras, will be able to explore such matters in the coming years -- years in which they will also be able to look back at a Mahler Sixth well done.

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