A full house in Dana Auditorium heard an enterprising program that found the all-professional musicians of the Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra at their peak form. This was the first time this season that the Eastern Music Festival‘s principal conductor, Gerard Schwarz, had taken the podium, and this concert proved him to be an alert and congenial accompanist as well as an interpreter able to sustain his vision over a long and sprawling Romantic work.

It seems that every violinist (but especially those trying out their wings as virtuosi) perform either Mendelssohn’s Second Violin Concerto or the First Violin Concerto, in G Minor, Op. 26, by Max Bruch (1838-1920), the guest artist’s choice for this program. Familiarity can leave the frequent concert attendee jaded, but there was nothing “safe and routine” about Sarah Chang’s intensely committed performance of the old warhorse. Really digging into her violin’s strings with firm and steady bow pressure, Chang produced a full, warm sound as she probed every corner of the familiar score. Sometimes she used more rubato than usual, but there was no question of her commitment to the composer or of her close attention to both Schwarz and the orchestra. The balance between the soloist and the orchestra was ideal and ensemble was tight, with the strings exhibiting a fine patina. The woodwinds and brass were excellent. Chang was recalled to the stage multiple times during a prolonged standing ovation.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1912) was haunted all his life by the specter of Death. Guilt began early with the loss of a favorite brother from one of the rampant diseases of that pre-vaccine era. To this obsession were added the losses of both of his children along with a growing awareness of his weakened heart by the time he composed such late works as his Symphony No. 9 in D Major. Two sprawling slow movements, both of which fade away into silence, sandwich two faster movements. A complete performance can run anywhere between an hour and fifteen minutes and an hour and forty minutes, based upon a survey of current recordings. The first movement begins with a hushed three-note rhythm in the cellos and solo horn that composer Alban Berg called “Death itself.” After six measures, the principal melody makes its first timid appearance in the second violins; it then returns in a dozen different guises. Two notes from this melody are eventually developed in a way that recalls the central musical theme of Beethoven’s “Lebewohl” (“Farewell”) piano sonata. This somber and frightening movement can be seen as an individual coming to terms with death, portrayed by the abrupt juxtaposition of quiet and plaintive passages set against loud and savage passages. The “farewell-like” theme returns in the second movement scherzo, which Deryick Cooke (in Gustav Mahler) calls “a Ländler divested of all charm.” Cooke calls the following Rondo-Burleske “Mahler’s most modern movement: a masterly structure of dissonant linear counterpoint, a contrived chaos built from a myriad of fragments of theme, a ferocious outburst of fiendish laughter at the futility of everything.” The last movement is Mahler’s farewell to life. Over its course, horror and bitterness are gradually changed into what Cooke calls “acceptance and unquenched belief in life.”

Schwarz’s interpretation did not linger excessively over the slow movements. All four movements were firmly subordinated to his overall vision, and his firm control of the orchestra helped keep the symphony focused. He employed a very wide dynamic range, from a floated whisper to shattering fortes. The string sections played as one, producing a full, warm sound; the fast passages were cleanly articulated. The woodwinds, brass, harps, and percussion were excellent.

Several movements benefited from concertmaster Jeffrey Multer’s strongly characterized solos, and cellist Neal Cary’s carefully phrased solo enhanced the latter half of the finale. There were outstanding solos by other principals: Jeffrey Fair leading the horns, clarinetist Shannon Scott, bassoonist Kristin Jensen, and trumpeter Mark Niehaus. The deep and pungent contrabassoon of Michael Burns, the agile tuba of Lee Hipp, and the beautifully focused timpani sound of John Feddersen added much to the sonic tapestry conjured up by Schwarz.