Western Piedmont Symphony programmed an ambitions and exciting celebration to conclude their 50th season. Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the “Resurrection,” required the joined forces of two Hickory musical establishments and the combined talents of over 200 musicians. It was a rousing and energetic performance of one of the most grand and exciting musical works for orchestra and choir, and a fitting celebration for such an anniversary.
The Western Piedmont Symphony has been a longstanding and sturdy musical fixture of the Hickory area for decades. This anniversary emphasizes the dedication and passionate support of the musicians and the community that are so necessary for the longevity and success of music organizations, especially in today’s artistic climate. In spite of fierce competition from concurrent music festivals in both Wilkesboro and Asheville, this concert appeared to draw a larger than average and very enthusiastic crowd for WPS. The anticipation prior to downbeat was palpable.
Conductor and musical director John Gordon Ross is in his 23rd season with the orchestra, and it shows. Even with multiple musicians “imported” from Charlotte and Greensboro to fill out the ranks – the score calls for the largest possible contingent of strings as well as seven percussionists and two dozen brass players – this ensemble had both a musical and personal camaraderie of long standing that enhanced the unity of the performance.
Mahler’s second symphony was one of his more popular works during his lifetime. The piece features a positively massive instrumentation; in addition to a large orchestra and mixed choir, the work calls for two soloists, an organ, and an offstage brass ensemble. Mahler explores themes of death and resurrection throughout the work, both instrumentally and in the text. The large forces exploring a weighty theme make for an epic, sweeping musical exploration of one of the most pressing existential questions.
Maestro Ross’ tempos were consistently on the fast side. While it was exciting to hear, the woodwind section struggled with the pace at times and might have been shown to a better advantage at a more relaxed tempo. Considering the placement of the choir on the floor of the auditorium off to one side and the offstage brass ensemble, coordination between all of the separate components was effective. Ross’ consistently dramatic approach to dynamic change proved a strong advantage in this striking work.
The vocal contributions of the guest soloists and the Hickory Choral Society gave the last two movements of the symphony their trademark ethereal, supernatural quality. Louise Toppin, soprano, and Diane Thornton, contralto, approached the work with the musical maturity necessary for presenting the very heart of the 80-minute work. The duet section was especially touching. Balance was an intermittent issue between the soloists and the large orchestra, but the emotional quality of the music was never lost. HCS adapted well to singing from a somewhat awkward position (it was simply impossible to fit any more musicians on the stage) and provided a warm tone and disciplined approach, thanks to the preparation of conductor J. Don Coleman.
Overall, the orchestra, choir, and soloists attacked the intimidating work with gusto. While there were some consistent issues with rhythmic clarity across and between sections, the enthusiastic approach was far more memorable than the rhythmic peccadillos. Hickory is proud of its classical music scene, and for good reason. It’s rare for an orchestra operating in a town this size to get up the gumption to attempt such a giant of the classical cannon requiring literally hundreds of musicians. Congratulations to WPS for their 50th season and for pulling off Mahler 2!