The Triad audience met the second prospective conductor vying for the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra Music Director position Saturday night. Donato Cabrera is currently Music Director of the California Symphony and the Las Vegas Philharmonic. The program he led in the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts included a work from the 21st century, as well as two from the 20th.

Cabrera gave introductory remarks before each piece, clueing the audience in to what was about to take place. He said that all three works contained a “childhood” theme. The opening Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) by John Adams (United States, b. 1947) depicts the composer’s sometimes terrifying ride in an automobile when he was a child. This is a “minimalist” composition, with certain patterns and rhythms relentlessly repeated, such as the consistent woodblock, which is heard throughout the four-minute work. It was a tour-de-force of orchestral color, with brass pitted against percussion, or strings against winds, all with a whirlwind of energy.

Some initial ensemble issues quickly dissipated as the conductor and orchestra came together. Cabrera’s conducting (without a podium upon which to stand) seemed to be a bit higher than many, but full of nuance, excitement, and vitality – a stimulating start to an ambitious program.

Following was a rich and expressive performance of Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947) by Samuel Barber (United States, 1910-81). About 1/3 of the orchestra left the stage, including all five percussionists, forming a more serene sound. This one-movement composition sets text from a poem by James Agee (United States, 1909-55) and featured soprano Maria Valdes, known for her performances in opera and in concert.

Knoxville recounts the impressions of a young boy as he lies in the grass, with the sounds of his family and his neighborhood being heard. They are mostly warm remembrances, with Barber portraying a serene scene of Agee’s childhood. The entire piece lasts about 15 minutes.

The opening rocking motion sets the stage, and the soprano gently enters shortly after, setting the idyllic scene. Valdes’ singing revealed a rich and expressive sound, well-suited to the work. The second section of the piece depicts motor cars and the hustle and bustle of city life, with appropriate “horn calls” from the orchestra. Maestro Cabrera kept both soloist and orchestra together with loose reins, making sure the two complemented each other. The rocking motion returns and contains a couple of climaxes. The first was a gentle high note, with Valdes nailing the pianissimo soaring B-flat. The second took place at the conclusion, where the singer declared that no one “will ever tell me who I am”; a tear-jerking moment. Brava!

Perhaps the most impressive performance was Symphony No. 4 in G (1901) by Gustav Mahler (Germany, 1860-1911). This is a “smaller” work for the composer, relatively speaking, clocking in at just under an hour. Maestro Donato described it as “contained” and “classical” in form. Notably, Mahler “pared down” the orchestra to about 80 players (no tubas or trombones), although there were still five percussionists, five horns, three trumpets, and a harp.

The composer utilizes one of his earlier songs, “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life), which depicts a child’s vision of heaven; this image is the basis of the entire symphony. What sounds simple in context becomes a labyrinth of ideas as Mahler, certainly one of the masters of orchestration, presents wonderful contrasting textures and timbres, often in startling juxtapositions.

The opening jingling sleighbell sets the perfect child-like mood that is reflected throughout the entire symphony. Cabrera used a lot of freedom of expression, especially in tempos, which helped highlight the movement’s many moods. For example, the second theme, initially presented by the cellos, was taken at a slower tempo than some conductors might take, bringing the beauty to the fore. Other sections were raucous, and still others gentle.

The second movement is distinctive, employing a specially tuned violin that was played by concertmaster Marjorie Bagley to depict “the dance of death,” although this characterization of death has been described as “very good-natured.” Bagley’s playing was flawless, and occasionally she was joined by assistant concertmaster Wendy Rawls. This movement is the “dance movement” and is in a minor key, while the contrasting sections use a gentle major key Ländler (a folk dance).

The third movement is given over to a gorgeous hymn-like tune, played as gently and as tentatively as one could ask for, sensitively presented by the cello section. This tune becomes the basis for the theme-and-variation structure. Here too, as in the first movement, abrupt changes turn on a dime. The contrasting sections feature a plaintive oboe, led, and flawlessly intoned by Mary Ashley Barret. A big surprise occurs towards the end of the movement, when a giant major chord erupts from the strings and winds, with trumpets blaring and moving to magically spun changes in harmonic progressions before the movement returns to the calm with which it began.

In the finale, soprano Valdes returned to the stage to sing the song “The Heavenly Life,” as Mahler instructed, “with child-like, bright expression, and without the slightest suggestion of parody.” Again, her expressive voice perfectly caught the various “joys of heaven” portrayed in the poem. Fragments from the first movement (sleighbells) appear, and the entire movement ends in a pianissimo that slowly fades into silence.

The crowd, obviously moved by the beauty of the conclusion, sat silent for several seconds before erupting into applause in appreciation of Maestro Cabrera’s sensitive and strong leadership and Valdes’ artistic presentation. Cabrera singled out several major contributors to the success of the performance in addition to those mentioned earlier: principal horn Robert Campbell‘s impeccable playing, percussionist Wiley Sykes’ contribution of sleighbells, trumpeter Garret Klein, harpist Helen Rifas, as well as the principals of the winds section.