Perhaps still reflecting the joint effects of 9-11 and the recession, an enthusiastic but less than full house heard superlative performances of Mozart and Mahler by the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra under departing Music Director Stuart Malina Thursday May 9 in Greensboro’s War Memorial Auditorium. A student chamber orchestra serenaded concert goers as they entered and looked over the brochures announcing the five guest conductors selected as candidates, from nearly 300 applications, who will assay their musicianship with both the orchestra and audience during the 2002-2003 season.

Davis Levy of Wake Forest University gave a well-focused Prelude Lecture that had musical excerpts from both works that were programmed, Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. In the Mozart, he explained the rush of commissions the composer was busy with when the request for a second commission for the Haffner family arrived. He played both the “triumph” aria of Osmin from the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail and the very similar fast music of the Haffner finale. Key samples of the Mahler symphony were played. The most tantalizing of all came last, a Welte-Mignon piano roll of Mahler himself playing the opening movement of the Fifth. This was made by the composer during his stopover in Leipzig on November 9, 1905, using a Feurich piano (La Grange. Mahler: Vienna: Triumph and Disillusion, pp. 267-8).

Malina used a reduced string section, 8-8-4-4-3, for Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D, K.385. His tempos were well chosen for the hall, allowing players to execute their parts without a sense of a mad dash one sometimes gets in post-original instrument “Puritan” style performances. He allowed the music time to breathe and register. All the string sections were very clear in articulation of their parts. The blend of brass and woodwinds was unusually good. Like birds in the forest, woodwinds got a chance to display in the gentle flowing andante. Bassoons and timpanist William Congdon played prominent roles in all four movements.

Nearly 90 musicians filled the stage for the Fifth Symphony of Mahler. Principal Trumpet Anita Cirba seemed to have endless reserves for her exposed and extensive part, from the lone opening solo until the end. All the brass had a very good night, not least Principal Horn Robert Campbell, with a key solo in the fifth movement, and whose section had many moments in the sun. Despite having only eight players, the cello section came across full of feeling, with as much rich sound as they could muster. Malina was outstanding in clearly delineating the myriad of sudden tempo changes that Mahler demanded. This collage-like complexity wasn’t smoothed over. Without false sentimentality, the harp and strings were a study in serenity in the Adagietto. Levy had pointed out that this movement is often abused, being played as a funeral dirge while it was actually a “love letter” to the composer’s pregnant wife. Malina’s firm control of his sprawling forces and their high standard of performance brought a real standing ovation with a number of curtain calls in which the numerous solo players were acknowledged.

With no soloist to share the stage, Malina was alone to field a lively series of questions from audience members during his justly popular concert “Postlude.” He discussed short-term future plans, to move his home to Harrisburg, Pa., and commute to New York City where he has a Broadway project with Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel. Details of Mahler’s written directions in the score were revealed, as was his sequence of rehearsals for the program. The subject of conductors’ working styles came up with allusions to the recent Dutoit/Montreal case as well as that of his predecessor. He stressed his belief in an atmosphere of collegiality. While most of his rehearsals were relaxed, he said that he had his “moments” and that on a scale of tyranny of one to ten , he was about a fourat his worst. In this age of marketing, he stressed that audience feedback about next season’s guest conductors would be important.

Before taking the helm of the GSO, Malina was Associate Conductor of the Charleston (S.C.) Symphony. That orchestra’s Concertmaster, Alexander Kerr, is now the Concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which has a continuous Mahler tradition going back to the composer’s lifetime and the conductor Willem Mengelberg. Malina said he had had long discussions about the score with Kerr. He said that they had used the Concertgebouw bowings for this performance but that he had rejected some of the tempos. He felt that the Dutch orchestra could more readily adopt a Viennese Waltz style than the GSO could.

The GSO announced the names of their five finalists to succeed Malina: Markland Thakar, Thomas Wilkins, Shinik Hahm, Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Keri-Lynn Wilson. I hope that whoever is selected will be able to obtain the high quality of outstanding younger soloists that Malina was able to select such as violinists Chee-Yun, Pamela Frank and Dmitry Sitkovetsky, cellists Alban Gerhardt and Edward Arron, and pianists Andrew Armstrong and Anne-Marie McDermott.