Violinist Nigel Armstrong was the featured soloist at the Eastern Music Festival’s July 5 concert of the Young Artists Orchestra, conducted by Grant Cooper. Tall and elegant, Armstrong brought sparkle and vivacity to the Concerto No. 5 in A by W. A. Mozart, one of the violin repertory’s most beloved concertos. He liberally peppered the concerto with mini-cadenzas in addition to the expected cadenza near the end of the first movement. His “Turkish” section of the Rondo fairly smoldered – indeed, this was a rapid performance of both of the concerto’s outer movements. The violin entrance of the principal theme of the first movement felt a bit hasty and unsettled both times. Not so the Prelude from the Partita No. 3 in E, S.1006, by J.S. Bach that Armstrong offered us as an encore. It was bright, brisk, and cheerful.

After the short first half, the stage was set for the huge orchestra Gustav Mahler calls for in the score of his Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor. Space was found for 48 string players plus 36 assorted woodwind, brass, and percussion players – over seven dozen young musicians in all, most of them playing Mahler for the very first time!

Mahler completed nine symphonies, movements of a 10th and yet another work, Das Lied von der Erde, which is every bit as much a symphony as any of his others – but he was apprehensive about calling it his “Ninth,” knowing that Beethoven didn’t live to write another after his mighty “Ninth.”

For the first four symphonies, Mahler drew on material he had written for his dozen songs based on folk legends and tales called Das Knaben Wunderhorn, freely translated as The Youth’s Magic Horn. However, a serious life-threatening illness then changed his optic and mood, and he wrote the next three symphonies with brooding and foreboding in his mind. He composed almost as though the act of writing was cathartic. An additional emotional upheaval infused Mahler during the writing of the Symphony No. 5 – he met and fell in love with Alma Schindler, a beautiful and intelligent music-lover half his age. The fourth movement of his 5th symphony, scored for strings and harp only, was his declaration of love – they were married four months later. And that declaration – the Adagietto – is the most frequently played piece by Mahler – often by itself.

Mahler’s quirky and moody musical style, often episodic, defies attempts at unifying the disparate sections. Contrast is always present (contrary to the other champion of lengthy symphonies, Anton Bruckner), and the challenge for the music director is to balance all of the elements in order to present a cohesive and comprehensible unity. In this respect, Symphony No. 5 is particularly challenging.

The first movement is marked “Funeral march; at a measured pace; Strong – Like a procession.” No composer has ever offered as many instructions to the conductor (“Anmerkung für den Dirigent”) as Mahler. The symphony starts with a military-like call on the trumpet, the first of many trumpet solos in the evening, here admirably played by principal trumpet, Wilson Childers (20, of Warner Robins, GA). The movement ends much as it begins, with a return to calm.

But the second movement is full of fury. Marked “Stormily agitated; with greatest vehemence,” it is the musical equivalent of The Scream, painted by Edvard Munch, and dating from the same period. The young student musicians had no problem with the musical hysterics Mahler requires. And a quarter-hour later, after fast and angry passages, the movement ends, as T. S. Elliot ends the Hollow Men, “Not with a bang, but a whimper.” Mahler then specifies that a long pause follow before beginning the third movement, which is prefaced with the Roman numeral II, implying that the previous two movements should be treated as a block of sorts.

The third movement is a grandiose Scherzo, a term defining the Beethovenesque evolution of the classical Menuetto to its much faster and newer version, with an Italian connotation of “a joke.” This movement was exceedingly well played with subtle glissandos in the strings, echo effects with mutes, some superb obbligato horn solos by Tony Padilla Denis (21, Meridian, MS), and some more lovely trumpet playing by Childers, whose sweet tone and subtle vibrato were perfect in the lyrical trio moments of the Scherzo.

The last two movements are played without a significant break, even though it is clear where one ends and the last begins. Prefaced with the Roman numeral III, they are thematically related and propose musically that the anxiety and tragedy of the previous movements can be overcome with Love (embodied by the famous Adagietto) and fresh and joyful intercourse with Nature as the symphony rushes head-long into its swift and inevitable conclusion.

Maestro Cooper moved the Adagietto along although most modern conductors tend to stretch out the movement, milking the emotional content of this exquisite musical gem.  The last movement was mostly straight forward, a musical catharsis for musicians and audience alike.

Maestro Cooper can take pride in a job well done – his musicians played well, and in terms of solo playing, often superbly. Young people like big music!

(Updated 7/8/18.)