A first-rate Mahler's Seventh

Critic's Corner//Music

Murai and Peabody's student orchestra tame unruly symphony

February 22, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

If there's a problem child among Gustav Mahler's nine symphonies, it's No. 7. A little unwieldy and unruly, prone to go off in unexpected directions, the Seventh has never been quite as easy to love as the others.

But the work responds well to discipline, respect and affection, qualities it received Tuesday night by conductor Hajime Teri Murai and the Peabody Symphony Orchestra.

Mahler, a little obsessive about death, slipped something funereal into all of his symphonies, usually to profound effect. In the Seventh, though, he treats deathly things with a wry detachment, as if he isn't really all that afraid, but maybe even a little bemused.

The Scherzo is a perfect example. Mahler seems to be evoking the kind of scene described in Oscar Wilde's poem "The Harlot's House" - "strange mechanical grotesques making fantastic arabesques," "ghostly dancers [spinning] to sound of horn and violin, like black leaves wheeling in the wind." It's all strange and spooky, but much too fascinating to be totally frightening.

And then, after four movements of nighttime (or nightmarish) imagery, Mahler lets loose with a quirky finale that reaches a level of frat party-rambunctiousness, and you can't help but want to break out another keg. It's as if Mahler suddenly embraces, however briefly or insincerely, the eat-drink-and-be-merry philosophy.

If you try to make too much out of this roughly 80-minute symphony, you run the risk of making it sound ponderous or silly (check out the old recording conducted by Otto Klemperer for a demonstration). Murai struck a neat balance that allowed the score's alternately moonlit and sunlit pathways equal value.

The performance had an organic power. Taut tempos still allowed a good deal of plasticity, while careful attention to small details of orchestration assured a steady stream of color (a perfect example being the fourth movement's delicate mandolin and guitar contributions, which came through beautifully here).

So many different things pop up in the finale that it can seem as perplexing as Britney Spears' new dome, but the conductor held everything together firmly and persuasively, zipping through less inspired passages to help the brilliant ones shine even more brightly.

He regularly challenges Peabody students with Mahler, a composer who makes as many technical as emotional demands on performers. When the conductor last programmed Symphony No. 7, in 2000, his grasp of Mahler's musical language was more impressive than the orchestra's ability to meet the symphony's hurdles. Not this time.

Judging by Tuesday's results, the current crop of instrumentalists at the conservatory must be among the best yet. Yes, there were some bloopers and a few moments when concentration seemed to flag, but the orchestra nonetheless consistently belied its student status, especially in the string sections.

This being Peabody's 150th anniversary year, many of the season's concerts feature returning alumni. And so it was on Tuesday.

Cellist Go Eun Park, now teaching in South Korea, came back to give a hearty account of Haydn's C major Cello Concerto. Although her juicy sound might have been more appropriate for Dvorak, the expressive intensity of her playing generated thoroughly winning results. Murai and the orchestra provided smooth support.

David Grandis, who did grad work at Peabody and now conducts a university orchestra in Grenoble, France, took the podium at the start of the evening to lead a tidy performance of Sparkle, a work from 2005 by Shafer Mahoney. It proved to be short, pop music-y, innocuous and rather fun.


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