The Sixth Symphony, in A minor, subtitled the “Tragic,” is the first of three symphonies by the eccentric and eclectic Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler to be played during the five-week season of the 2015 Eastern Music Festival. It was performed by the excellent student “Eastern Symphony Orchestra” under the direction of Grant Cooper, in his second year at EMF. Lasting fully an hour and a quarter, it was preceded only by the short and charming (but deceptively simple) overture to Mozart’s opera Le Nozze di Figaro, in which the students acquitted themselves admirably. Kudos to the young conducting intern, Ho-Yin Kwok, from Hong Kong, who directed the group with ease and confidence.

Of his nine completed symphonies, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is the closest in form to the classical model of the symphony as developed by Haydn – only four movements, no added soloist or chorus, sonata forms for the first movement and for the finale, a gorgeous slow movement and a scherzo, which in this performance was played after the first movement, as it is published, despite Mahler’s preference (expressed in a correspondence with Willem Mengelberg, conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) for it to be played between the slow movement and the Finale.

The first movement started a bit rapidly, being marked Allegro ma non troppo, with the added German indication “Heftig, aber markig” (“Vehemently but distinct”). I found it hasty and lacking in weightiness, but by the repeat of the exposition, things had evened out. I appreciated the lush and energetic (“schwungvoll”) second theme with its Alma (Mahler’s young bride) association much better at the repeat. Occasionally the decision of the conductor to switch his beat to a streamlined Alla breve (despite the angularity of the music) was disturbing – akin to shifting into overdrive on a mountain road!

With the Scherzo, one is challenged by all the superficial details Mahler throws at the listener. They can easily detract, especially in a style already so “in your face.” Mahler marks the second section (a trio in all but name) “Altvaterisch, poco meno mosso” (“Old-fashioned; a bit less fast”), but this too seemed quite quick, giving the whole Scherzo a feeling of impatience.

The slow movement, Andante moderato, is lovely, full of twists and turns and couched in a key about as distant from the rest of the symphony’s obstinate key (A Minor) as possible – E-flat major, which shifts felicitously to E minor and G major before returning to E-flat. And apart from intonation problems in the double basses, it was the best playing of the evening.

The Finale has a mystique of autobiographical fate attached to it – Mahler wrote that at three points in that movement, the hero endures a blow, orchestrated by the huge hammer in the percussion section, the third of which proves fatal. In fact, in 1907, not long after the premiere of the symphony, Mahler lost his position at the Vienna Opera, then he lost his beloved daughter to scarlet fever, and finally he was diagnosed with a heart problem that was to claim his life four years later.

The Finale is also one of Mahler’s greatest creations – a long (nearly half an hour) but grandiose embellishment of a sonata form, coalescing to a reiterated low A minor chord and ending with an ominous, portentous pizzicato. All eyes were on the giant wooden hammer with its restored third blow, but it seemed not to make any bit as much sound as the bass drum next to it! But four pairs of cymbals did clash mightily, and in other more melancholy moments, the herds of cowbells both back stage and on stage added to the color and mood of the evening.

Considering that this is only the second week of the Eastern Music Festival, the student orchestra produced some mighty sounds and some finely detailed playing in this exceedingly difficult work. The first movement solos of trumpeter Alex Wilborn were powerful and accurate.

The principal horn, Kelsay Jones, was awesome, especially in the tender moments of the slow movement where a delicate hint of vibrato added so much to his expressiveness. Timpanist Laura Grems also stood out, constantly changing sticks to suit the instructions of the composer and playing incredibly in tune throughout the concert.

Tonight (Friday, July 10, at 8 pm in Guildford College‘s Dana Auditorium) the other student orchestra, the “Guilford Symphony Orchestra,” will tackle the five-movement Seventh Symphony by Mahler, under the direction of Eric Garcia. On Saturday, August 1, Gerard Schwarz will lead the Festival Orchestra and Chorus in Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection.” Mahler’s time has come!

For more information on all pending EMF events, see our calendar.