Nearly one hundred University of North Carolina School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra students crowded the stage of the Stevens Center Saturday night to perform the gargantuan Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). The work clocks in at about an hour long and contains five movements. As Thomas Wilkins said in his opening remarks, this was the first symphony that Mahler wrote that did not in some way rely on vocal music.

Mahler designed an overarching three-part structure overlaid on the five movements. According to liner notes by Steven Lowe in a 1990 recording featuring Zubin Mehta with the New York Philharmonic, the symphony represents a “Dantean journey from infernal darkness, through cleansing purgatory, to ultimate light and joy.” Leading the student orchestra was guest conductor and artist-in-residence Wilkins, Principal Conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

The first two movements comprise the first section of Mahler’s structure. The opening “Trauermarsch” (Funeral March) begins with a solo trumpet announcing a distinctive rhythm that reappears throughout the movement. Unerringly played by principal trumpeter Johammee Romero, this motto leads quickly to the first cataclysmic climax a moment later. The strings follow with the funeral march. A variety of moods is presented here, and for each, Wilkins had seemingly endless gestures to capture the proper emotion, always clearly presented to the orchestra.

The second movement begins with fiendish energy; an abundant number of contrasts are heard, including defiant anger juxtaposed with painful sorrow. Although ensemble was not perfect (how does one get 100 players to do something at the exact same time?), there was no lack of energy and strength contrasting with the tender lyricism.

The second part of the triptych is the Scherzo, the longest of this form that Mahler ever wrote. The opening is exuberant, even jolly; waltzes and other Austrian dances are heard. Sometimes the thick texture became a bit muddy in this performance. It is perhaps in this movement that Mahler draws out the distinct sounds of the orchestral parts, much as a painter uses all of the colors on his palette to present innumerable shades. Solo horns (wonderfully played by Cameron Pollard and Logan Fischer), woodwinds en masse and solo, soft strings (sometimes played pizzicato), blaring brass, and percussion were thrown in for good measure. As Lowe writes, the movement is “filled with hope and pain.”

The last two movements comprise the third part, starting with a drop-dead gorgeous movement for only strings and harp, which was lovingly played by Connor May Kelly. Tenderness and beauty abounded, with some great playing from the cello and second violin sections. Mahler is in no rush to resolve dissonances, which adds delightful poignancy.

The fifth movement is full of folksy optimism, with rustic tunes generously given to the winds. Numerous themes, some old, others new, are presented along the way as part of the celebration. Sometimes the celebration is so wild, it borders on cacophony.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is a great piece for a student orchestra to have the opportunity to play, and the UNCSA Symphony Orchestra displayed great commitment and stamina. Wilkins’ distinguished conducting brought out excitement and energy, but also tenderness and soulfulness, which is just what the score calls for. The large masked audience was duly appreciative of the heroic performance.