Gustav Maher insisted that, to him, to compose a symphony was to compose “a world.”
If so, it’s a world on paper, on the drawing board, that still must be brought into being. And in the case of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, it’s created, not in seven days, but in 75 minutes.
That’s a pretty big hill to climb. Music Director Marcelo Lehninger and the Grand Rapids Symphony were up to the challenge with a sensational performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony on Friday, February 3. The concert in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series titled "Mozart, Mahler & Marcelo" repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4.
Lehninger is in his first season as Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony, but it’s only his second appearance in DeVos Performance Hall since his appointment eight months ago, and the Brazilian-born conductor spoke briefly to the audience of nearly 1,400.
“I’m so happy to conduct this wonderful piece with my friend, your Grand Rapids Symphony,” he said.
Moments later, with a wave of his hands, Lehninger let lose the forces of nature at his disposal.
It’s not an exaggeration. The Mahler Fifth Symphony is full of the delights of warmth and sunshine on a summer’s day as well as the terrors of the deep at night. Sudden explosions above and subterranean shifts of tectonic plates below appear in equal measure.
Playing the Mahler’s Fifth is a daunting challenge for any orchestra. Conductor Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has said taking it on is like climbing Mount Everest. No matter how prepared you are there’s no way to anticipate everything you’ll encounter along the way. You just have to make up your mind to do it.
Lehninger, 37, led a performance that was intensely expressive, yet he remained firmly in control while exploring the never-ending struggle between darkness and light in the first two movements. He channeled virtuoso music into the concise and precise form of an Austrian folk dance, a Landler, in the third movement, and he wore his heart on his sleeve in the poetic fourth movement.
The heroes in the orchestra were many. Principal trumpeter Charley Lea set the tone at the outset with a powerful but somber funeral fanfare.
Principal Horn Richard Britsch, to the surprise of many in the audience, walked to the front of the orchestra and played brilliantly the entire third movement from memory. The evocative music alone sounds rather like a concerto for horn and orchestra. Britsch’s presence made it look that way as well.
Mahler already was at work on his Fifth Symphony when he met the former Alma Schindler. They fell madly in love, and Mahler composed the beautiful fourth movement as a love letter for his bride-to-be.
The strings provided a gossamer backdrop, but Principal Harpist Elizabeth Colpean supplied the tenderness within the lovely melody. The hall was deadly silent at its conclusion.
Not so following the fifth and final movement, a rondo and finale that wrestles with the fundamental questions concerning all of humanity. It’s easy to let it all spin out of control with bombast and hyperbole. It’s even easier to dare not try.
Lehninger threw himself and his orchestra into the challenge, facing the conflict, focusing on the contrast, lingering at the edge of the precipice, but not quite going over the edge of excess.
The experience was more than exciting, it was transformative. The audience’s reaction was proof. As Lehninger leaned back on the podium rail to catch his breath, Friday’s audience erupted in a standing ovation lasting seven minutes.
That offers the promise of good things to come.
The evening opened with guest pianist Andrew von Oeyen as soloist in a sparkly performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17. It bears one trait in common with portions of Mahler’ Fifth Symphony. It’s often about the contrast between dark and light, though at the time Mozart composed it, he was having what would be the best year of his professional life.
Von Oeyen, who’s exactly seven weeks to the day younger than Lehninger, is a past winner of the Gilmore Young Artist Award of Kalamazoo’s Gilmore International Keyboard Festival.
Precisely three years and three days ago, the long and lanky American pianist was in DeVos Hall with a mighty performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Grand Rapids Symphony.
This time, he made a lady out of a Steinway concert grand piano sound, coaxing a delicate, fortepiano-like sound out of the instrument, performing exquisite cadenzas with dazzling grace.
With Mozart, there’s simply nowhere to hide. Nor did Lehninger try. That also offers the promise of good things yet to come for the Grand Rapids Symphony.