Orlando’s most remarkable classical music organization celebrated 20 years of music last night. The event called for a special program to spotlight the virtuosity of a mature Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra (OPO) under the baton of Maestro Christopher Wilkins.
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, a comprehensive piece of profoundness, philosophical inquiry and gigantic proportions, received a magnificent reading at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Center, where a full house experienced the collaborative efforts of more than 200 performers. Clocking in at roughly 100 minutes, the performance was an extremely thoughtful homage to this crowning achievement of the Romantic period.
Wilkins’ reading of the symphony was successful not only because he showed attention to detail, discernment of its dense orchestration, understanding of the composer’s inspiration and purpose, and endurance to lead a massive orchestra through a prolonged orchestral examination; above all, Wilkins accomplished the ascent, through each of the six movements, toward the heavenly finale where Mahler’s quest for the meaning of life culminates.
As was manifested by his insightful opening remarks about the meaning and form of the symphony, Wilkins is a conductor with perceptiveness about the nature of Mahler’s work. His handling of the tempos throughout the performance felt comfortable and appropriate, allowing the heavy orchestration of most parts to breathe and resonate. Dynamics were carefully worked out and must have been polished during the ensemble’s intensive rehearsals leading up to the opening night. Most importantly, he seamlessly fastened together the different sections that constitute the ensemble, resulting in a cohesive and organic whole — this awe-inspiring of all instruments, the orchestra.
The first movement got off to a vigorous start with the French horns, led by Mark Fischer. Forte jabs by the OPO’s impressive percussion battery accentuated the first theme segment of the movement. Timpanist Carl Rendek, as always, was sharp with his mallet blows and showed attention to the subtle changes in dynamics on his set of kettledrums. The strings, led by Concertmaster Rimma Bergeron-Langlois, were pungent and, in later movements, poignant and ethereal. The woodwinds delivered a gorgeous second theme, in contrast to the more strident opening passage for brass and percussion. Principal Oboe Jamie Strefeler took the main theme, which is later passed on to flute and to basses, in the recapitulation. The star of the first movement was Principal Trombone Jeffrey Thomas. Mahler’s score features solo trombone passages that are later revisited. Thomas’ lines were warm and mellifluous, rather than having the raspy and scratchy qualities that are more typical of the instrument.
No details were neglected by Wilkins and, particularly, the woodwinds, during the second and third movements. The composer’s extra-musical thoughts of flowers in the meadows and animals in the forest call for special orchestration, which duly underwent the treatment it deserves. A highlight of the third movement was the performance of Principal Trumpet Lyman Brodie, who left his seat upstage in the brass section to play offstage, as Mahler’s score indicates. Hiding in the back of the balcony and aided only by a video monitor, Brodie projected a rich tone that vibrated across the hall into the stage, where it blended with the sparse orchestration of those particular passages of the movement. The effect was mesmerizing, especially because the provenance of the trumpet melody was mysterious, yet it projected so well all around the Bob Carr. The offstage parts have been prepared especially well by the OPO, as was the case two years ago with the performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Brodie also demonstrated skill and adroitness handling his instrument during the first movement, when he swiftly adjusted the trumpet mute to alter the timbre of the instrument.
During the fourth and fifth movements, soprano Samantha Barnes Daniel took the spotlight as the lone vocal soloist of the night. Although the score calls for alto (or mezzo-soprano), Barnes Daniel’s range adapted extremely well and projected a deep and affectionate tone. The soloist’s lines in the symphony are rather sparse, but do demand a great deal of emphasis and emotion to communicate the message of Nietzsche’s text. The high French horn melody that accompanies the soloist was played especially well. Barnes Daniel’s tone was strong and blended well with the women’s and children’s choirs. Robin Stamper, Robin Jensen and David Brunner, as directors of The Florida Opera Theatre Women’s Chorus, Children’s Chorus and Women of the University of Central Florida’s Chorus, respectively, handled their duties considerably well, and the resulting interplay with the orchestra was refined. Although the vocal section is rather short in this lengthy symphony, it was a special moment of the performance.
The finale, Mahler’s hymn to love, was the culmination of all the preceding work. The string section did a particularly great job with the touching main theme. Toward the end of the slowly rising movement, the brass and percussion exploded in a climactic section that signaled the arrival at Mahler’s sacred life contemplations. Especially exuberant and discernible was Principal Tuba Robert Carpenter, providing the general effect of the orchestra with emphasis on the low ends, with the distinctive blares of the large brass instrument. Elongated piccolo trills and sustained strings, along with timpani rolls, bass drum beats and cymbal crashes, brought this excellent performance to a close.
The performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 was a very special event in the history of the OPO, not only because it marked the beginning of the organization’s new season after 20 years of service, but because it was a very faithful and insightful reading of a major piece. Wilkins led a strong ensemble, with every detail carefully considered, and with special sensitivity to the purpose of the piece. This is what this music is all about.
For upcoming concerts by the OPO, click here.
To read a preview and more information about Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, click here.
To watch a clip of the fourth movement, with mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, click here.
To watch a clip of the finale, conducted by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic, click here.
To read Matthew J. Palm’s review of the concert for the Orlando Sentinel, click here.