Attending a concert in which a student orchestra tackles a Mahler symphony may not sound like the ideal way to spend a Saturday evening.
But the University of Miami’s Frost Symphony Orchestra usually impresses with the polish and verve of its performances under conductor Thomas Sleeper, and the performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 made for an exciting and moving evening of music.
The concert at Gusman Hall was sold out and could have filled a larger hall, judging from the number of people who were turned away at the box office.
Before striking up the first notes of Mahler’s epic, hour-long symphony — the only work on the program — Sleeper told the audience how hard the orchestra had worked. The different sections voluntarily gathered for their own practice sessions in addition to the full orchestra rehearsals, enthusiastically embracing the behind-the-scenes drudgery necessary to bring a performance of difficult music to a high level.
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That hard work showed in the tight ensemble precision the orchestra displayed throughout this complex piece. In the opening movement, for example, the violins dashed through frenetic runs of quick notes under the blaring tones of winds and brass, playing not just with accuracy but with enough edge to cut through the brass, giving the passage a real Mahler sound of manic energy.
Even with all the rehearsal time, there was nothing drilled or rote about the performance. This was authentic Mahler, with the orchestra expressing the Fifth Symphony’s vast range of emotions. In the wistful melodies of the middle movements, these students in their late teens and early 20s did a creditable job of portraying world-weary Viennese nostalgia. And throughout there was an epic feel for the long line, a musical journey that begins with a funeral march and passes through strife, sadness, angst and romantic love before the hard-won light of its optimistic, major-key ending.
The opening funeral march was weighted and grim, with drum rolls, thunderclap chords and dark melodies in strings and winds, played with sure intonation and a sense of forward motion. The second movement came off with stormy, menacing vigor, but with a transparency that allowed all the sections’ contributions to be heard. In the third movement, the horns took center stage and gave an assured, graceful performance, with full tones and a trace of central European village band to their style.
The famous Adagietto was a highlight of the evening. Composed for strings and harp only, the movement was written as a love letter to Mahler’s wife Alma. Sleeper took the movement at a faster speed than do many conductors, giving it an extra jolt of urgency and passion. The orchestra played with a gorgeous string tone, full-bodied and rich even in pianissimo passages, with crescendos that reached ardent climaxes.
The final movement was a hard-driving, stirring performance, with sonorous, noble playing in the brass.
The performance wasn’t faultless, and there were some bobbled notes and late entrances. But these were quibbles in an exciting performance that did justice to this demanding, difficult symphony.
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