Orchestral Music Review Print



Beethoven's Furious Fifth and Moody Mahler

July 9, 2009 - Greensboro, NC:


I always have mixed feelings about going to hear an old war horse like Beethoven’s famous Symphony No. 5 in C Minor. On the one hand, it’s always great to come face to face with the best. On the other hand, do we really need another hearing of something so well-known?

But Thursday night’s performance of this venerable classic was one of the most exciting and thrilling performances I have had the pleasure to hear. Was it Eastern Music Festival Music Director Gerard Schwarz’s passionate conducting or was it the student orchestra, which is too young to have become jaded? Probably a mixture of both. In any case, Maestro Schwarz provided energetic leadership that demanded an equally energetic response from the ensemble.

The performance started out hot, with the four-note motto assertively chiseled. Schwarz chose a great tempo, which pushed the students to the limit, giving the music great drive and forceful climaxes.

The slower second movement features a beautiful tune that is embellished in a series of variations. The playing was appropriately gentle and moving. The scherzo is a delight and reveals Beethoven’s humorous side, with clever pizzicato passages. But the Trio was a furious race, which the orchestra handled with great aplomb.

There are few passages in music literature that can compare with the tension that builds over the ominous timpani strokes that link the third and fourth movements, the latter of which breaks out into a triumphant brass announcement. This arrival was thrilling.

Throughout the four movements, Schwarz let the musicians know in no-uncertain terms his intentions. Whether driving toward a thunderous release of tension, or sculpting a delicate passage for the winds, he provided direction and shape for every line of the score. During the solo cadenza passages, Schwarz put down the baton and allowed the individual musicians to play at their own pace, a nice acknowledgement of the musical ability of those players.

As one of my friends so aptly summed up the performance during intermission, “Beethoven would have been proud!”

Just as certain as Beethoven’s symphonies helped usher in the Romantic era, Mahler’s symphonies provide the bookend at its conclusion. And if the audience discerns the “theme” to Beethoven’s 5th to be triumph over adversity, Mahler makes sure the listener knows the intended “story” of many of his orchestral works by providing detailed programs.

His Symphony No. 2 (also in C minor) is subtitled “Resurrection” because of the overarching theme of death and redemption. The five movements run 80 minutes and call for a huge orchestra including an expanded percussion section, two harps, and instruments used for special timbre, such as English horn. It also makes use of a large chorus as well as soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, which are employed in the fourth and fifth movements. For this concert, the orchestra played only the first movement. But that single movement alone is 20-plus minutes.

The first movement, which began life as an independent tone poem, is a depiction of a funeral and begins with a stern and dark statement from the lower strings. To be sure, there are more hopeful tunes that ensue, but most of the musical utterances are ominous, setting the stage for the reconciliation that will come in the later movements.

In some ways, this music is technically harder than the Beethoven, with many sudden changes in tempo and mood. For the most part, the orchestra responded well, and captured the strong emotion of the score. Perhaps the main difference between a professional and a student orchestra is the ability to respond immediately to the conductor’s directions. Hence, ensemble both here and in the Beethoven, was not as tight as it could have been. But it was by no means sloppy. And the passion and energy of these young musicians made for a thrilling evening of music-making.