Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra at The Clarice

Not just any conservatory or university school of music can mount a concert featuring Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. It may not have familiar tunes, but Mahler’s Fifth is a landmark composition from the early 20th century that exemplifies the transition from lush “Romantic” music to daring new tonalities that start pulling away from merely pleasant listening.

It’s also a beast, requiring six French horns, four trumpets, two piccolos, both a bass trombone and a tuba, a timpani player who does more than just beat some drums, a harpist who does more than just strum some arpeggios, and on and on.

Conductor James Ross. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland School of Music.
Conductor James Ross. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland School of Music.

On Saturday night, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra plastered Mahler’s Fifth against the walls of the Dekelboum Concert Hall at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Conducted by UMD’s and Juilliard’s James Ross, the orchestra very effectively presented the symphony’s turbulent first 20 to 25 minutes and then began to make a turn into sunnier regions in the third of Mahler’s five movements.

In the final two movements leading to an exultant finish, Mr. Ross occasionally devolved into overly broad contrasts and the orchestra demonstrated some imbalance among sections in skill level. But the 70-minute symphony clearly announced the School of Music’s standing as a source for top-level training of instrumentalists in the highly competitive world of classical music, where technical standards are continually being revised upward.

A key question for listeners to Mahler’s Fifth is whether the symphony is a coherent progression from unbridled despair to victory or whether it’s just a composer throwing the kitchen sink into a giant tub of mixed-up musical ideas.

To help the audience answer that question, the performance got off to a terrific start with a dark and beautifully played minor-chord solo fanfare by principal trumpet Craig Basarich. The effect when the full orchestra complete with cymbal crash answered was electric, setting the tone for pieces of the fanfare to be passed all around the orchestra until the opening movement dissolved in a final, plucked note by the strings.

Instead of giving any release, the second movement ratchets up the tension further, and Mahler’s tempo marking is too delicious not to give to you in the original German: Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz. (You probably get the drift but for the record, that’s “Stormily moving with the greatest vehemence.” Okay then!) Once the opening few minutes of cacophony subsided, the multiple flutes and the cello section did a nice job of leading into some alternate, temporarily calmer themes before the storm surged again.

The third movement introduces the key of D major in which the symphony will ultimately end and is another showcase for many solo lines traded off around the ensemble. As a “scherzo” or a piece that in some way, however suggestive, has a feel of 3 beats to the bar, the third movement of Mahler’s Fifth is controversial for its extensive length (close to 20 minutes alone) and feel of too great a variety of ideas that happen to fit the scherzo definition. But Mr. Ross kept things moving, and attention to detail by the musicians was evident.

The fourth movement is a beautifully lyrical “Adagietto” that nevertheless has some disturbingly intrusive, initially wrong-sounding notes that pull the music into different and disorienting orbits. There’s much here that’s a matter of personal choice, but Mr. Ross elected to take the movement as it is sometimes played as a standalone composition, including at public funerals, at a very slow or truly “Adagio” tempo. Within the complete symphony, though, this can give the movement an excessively academic air and break down the progress of the entire piece from start to finish.

My own preference might be to save the achingly slow pace for the final movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, which is almost explicitly about the concept of death and will be performed by the National Symphony Orchestra from March 19-21, 2015 in The Kennedy Center Concert Hall. But at The Clarice, the strings did effectively measure out their bow strokes to execute Mr. Ross’ directions for the last notes of this movement of the Fifth Symphony.

The final movement of Mahler’s Fifth returns to D major and builds to a definitive conclusion, almost but not quite like a 19th-century symphony. Stamina makes a difference and the length of the symphony came into play here, with the violins madly sawing away to try to complement the final brass calls. During these passages the highest notes of the violins were not unanimously in tune and the brass buried the strings in volume as the strings began to flag. Nevertheless, the orchestra perfectly executed a final, surprising device as several bars from the end a sudden descending passage like a waterfall out of the woodwinds sets up one final flourish from the entire orchestra.

Many other student musicians had standout roles, but special kudos go to principal French horns Robert Williams and Avery Pettigrew (who traded off the top line in different movements) and to timpanist Laurin Friedland. Her rendering of not just typical timpani bass notes but also little pieces of melodies snuck in by Mahler on these big kettle drums were nicely done.

Pianist Christopher Wong. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland School of Music.
Pianist Christopher Wong. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland School of Music.

Prior to the Mahler symphony, the concert opened with Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 featuring Christopher Wong, who is still a student at the University of Maryland and who has won piano competitions there and elsewhere. The concerto is an entertaining perpetual-motion machine that presents crazily varied combinations of cascading notes and chords, many of them in very challenging 20th-century harmonies but always rotating around a tonal center anchored in various instruments or in the orchestra as a whole.

Mr. Wong is exceptionally comfortable at the piano and has such superlative technique that none of Prokofiev’s tricks began to faze him. His one challenge is an unusual one for a pianist of his skill level – he simply needs to play louder. I appreciate that many pianists today are trained not to stomp all over the music in recollection of Vladimir Horowitz’s souped-up Steinway that he shipped around the world to follow him on tour. But sometimes when Mr. Wong was playing counter-melodies, the piano devolved to a faintly watery stream, and when he was playing the same notes as the strings the music sounded like a symphony, not a concerto.

Piano concertos derive much of their powerful drama from the percussive bite of the piano hammers against the creamy sound of a full symphony orchestra. I would encourage Mr. Wong’s advisers to work with him to “go for it” with greater flair at the keyboard. He certainly has all the other tools he needs.

Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performed a program of Prokofiev and Mahler in their “Music in Mind” series for one night on Saturday, February 28, 2015 at the Elsie & Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall – 7309 Baltimore Avenue at The Clarice at the University of Maryland, in College Park, MD. For future events at The Clarice, go to their Performance Calendar.

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David Rohde
David Rohde is a pianist, conductor, vocal teacher, music arranger, and arts writer. David has worked extensively in musical theater in Washington and around the mid-Atlantic region. He’s been music director and conductor for shows ranging from the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ 2016 production of Oklahoma! in Fredericksburg to pop/rock musicals like Evita, Next to Normal and Blood Brothers in the D.C. suburbs. His other journeys around the musical genres have included performing a piano recital series at the National Lutheran Home, accompanying singers in repertoire from bel canto opera to contemporary Broadway, and fronting a band one night in Rockville for the late Joan Rivers. David is a 2-time recipient and 8-time nominee for the WATCH Award for Outstanding Music Direction, and he loves watching the actors and musicians he’s worked with “make it” when they pursue regional and national performing arts careers.