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With an opening funeral march and a brassy, jubilant conclusion, it's hard to mistake the arc of Mahler's Symphony No. 5, but the way each orchestra and each maestro will make this arc sound, over the course of more than an hour, largely depends on how extremely they render those two extremes – from C-sharp minor as we begin to D major as we conclude. As the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's program notes indicate, Mahler's biography suggests an unusually wide latitude, for this symphony was begun after he had nearly died at a 1901 performance conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. It was completed in 1903, after he had met and married Alma, so this work represents a pivotal moment in the composer's life and career, and the fourth movement, Adagietto, especially, is widely regarded as his love letter to Alma, the work's dedicatee. The first movement has at times sounded deeply lugubrious, almost as desolate as Shostakovich's wartime ruminations, while the final Allegro can be driven to a joyous frenzy comparable to Beethoven. Since the Charlotte Symphony and artistic director Christopher Warren-Green have powerfully presented Beethoven's Seventh and Shostakovich's Concerto for Piano and Trumpet already this season, it would be interesting to see how far they would go toward these extremes of delight and despair. And since the CSO hadn't performed Mahler's powerhouse at Belk Theater in over 21 years, it was anybody's guess.
Warren-Green's zest for Beethoven, extended by his orchestra in his absence just a couple of weeks ago with a vivid showing in Fidelio under the baton of James Meena, proved to be the most reliable barometer. In the presence of principal trumpeter John Parker's majestic flourishes launching the Funeral March, I couldn't bring myself to mourn the absence of a funereal mood. The outbreak by the full brass corps was thrilling and, while the winds were bittersweet, there was a slight hint of klezmer in their gait. Only the strings could manage what I'd call a lament, but even they were sweetly lyrical. Softening the solemnities that Leonard Bernstein found in the March, Warren-Green left us free to imagine the ensuing Stürmisch bewegt (violently agitated) movement as taking us deeper into anger and despair. The turbulence here is as dark and flavorful as any music that has emerged from Eastern Europe, yet there are intervening calms between the great storms where the cellos are the chief mellowing agent, and the glint of a lone triangle peeps through the roar of the trumpets. So if things are indeed darker in this second movement, we're moving decisively into the light by the end, with some unmistakably romantic lyricism from the violins. It was not a continuous movement toward the light, for the final outburst from the brass and drums almost drowned out the triangle, which kept tolling with renewed optimism through the concluding calm.
If Warren-Green avoided the constraints of a programmatic reading of Part 1, he readily embraced the youthful playfulness of the Scherzo that comprises Part 2. I've read about performances where the principal French horn actually comes upstage for his big moments, and that maneuver certainly wouldn't have been inappropriate here, except for the fact that Frank Portone's artistry and virtuosity didn't decisively eclipse the glory that Parker brought forth in the previous movements. Portone's breaths did become noticeably longer than any we had heard before, but what set the French horn's exclamations apart were their unmistakable affinity to the famed call that Wagner wrote for his heroic Siegfried and the signature outcries Strauss wrote for various orchestral protagonists, especially Till Eulenspiegel. There were other eccentricities to savor in this romp, including the section where we paused for a pizzicato quartet from the string principals. Percussion also became a little outré, and there was an agreeably Russian sloppiness to the brass when we reached the episode for the woodblocks. More startling than that – at least visually – were the postures of oboists Erica Cice and principal Hollis Ulaky. Instead of the usual downward gaze and concentration, like Olympic divers on top of a high platform before the moment of truth, Ulaky and Cice had their instruments tilted upwards toward the balcony. Look quickly and you'll also see Joshua Hood stuffing a cute mute into his bassoon, not as comical as outfitting a tuba with its clown hat but far more rare.
After all the brassy fanfares and all the woodwind frolicking and eccentricity, the arrival of Part 3, with the ethereal Adagietto, was most striking for stripping away all the previous frippery and artillery. Only the strings, violins foremost, and harpist Andrea Mumm were intimately playing here. Without burdening the music with any sacramental gravity – Bernstein selected this movement, after all, for RFK's funeral – Warren-Green made a compelling case for a quicker pace and for keeping the sweet harmonies aloft. So yes, Warren-Green also took a far sunnier view of the Finale. Portone, Hood, principal bassoonist Mary Beth Griglak, and principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo all contributed to the chirruping crossfire at the outset. Oboes and French horns soared over the merriment of the strings as we reached the midsection, definitely evoking the pastoral Beethoven for me. Nor were there any lingering clouds to mar the jubilation of the final onslaught of the brass, with a full complement of five percussionists as we reached a triumphant conclusion. That tireless little triangle lurked blissfully among the high spirits.
This program – this single work – will be repeated on Nov. 7, in the same venue. See the sidebar for details.