Orchestral Music Review



Winston-Salem Symphony: RVW and Mahler

May 18, 2010 - Winston-Salem, NC:


Robert Moody led the closing concert of his fifth season as Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony in a felicitous pairing of works of by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Mahler.

Temperamental and loose in structure, the music of Mahler is often moody. His Fifth Symphony is full of swift transitions from the benign to the belligerent. Once overwhelmed by powerful brass and the lush strings and by the profound lament and angst of the moment, how does one process the boisterous and aggressive woodwind mood breakers?  Michael Tilson Thomas once likened passages of Mahler to a wanderer in deep thought, who when he stubs his toe, returns to stub it again, as if to intensify the pain!

Meaningful cohesion and grand unity in a work of art is what the listener hopes to grasp; the work of the players is to have seen and understood this “Big Picture” and to perform it as such. Unfortunately, despite the wonderful playing of the orchestra, which was truly inspiring and moving, much of the first three movements felt episodic rather than structurally cohesive – which is the problem one must grapple with in much of Mahler’s composition. The five movements of the Fifth Symphony are divided into three large sections, grouping the first and second movements together, the third by itself and the last two movements together.

The first movement opens plaintively with a somber trumpet call outlining the key of C-sharp minor and bearing an uncanny resemblance to the bass line of the second movement (also a funeral march) of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica.” Melodies in Kletzmer-like thirds and sixths remind one of the folk music Mahler heard as a youth in his native Bohemia. Anita Cirba, principal trumpet, a genuine artist, played much of the evening with a rich dark (often forlorn) tone appropriate to the solemn and portentous nature of Mahler. Yet in the time it takes to take a deep breath, she wasback with a brilliant interjection and a tone that is bright and even frivolous.

The second movement of this weighty work sashays from maudlin to sassy. It is a long and complex movement catering more to the momentary than to the universal, making it easier to wallow in the sounds than to divine the meaning of them!  Principal Horn, Robert Campbell, shone in the many solo passages Mahler assigns him; the rest of the horn section was as stellar!

Following a long pause, dictated by the score, the third movement, a Scherzo, recalls a waltz, sometimes lilting sweetly and at other moments, slashing jaggedly and becoming almost a “danse macabre.” It was amusing to watch from the balcony the fast and furious instrument changes of the clarinet section; they detached the mouthpiece, put down the instrument and picked up an E-flat or an A or a B-flat clarinet, reattached the mouthpiece and lifted the new instrument to their lips, literally without skipping a beat!  (The change of clarinets is indicated by the score and facilitates playing in awkward keys with many sharps or flats.)

The familiar and beautiful Adagietto follows, for strings alone (including the harp), giving a moment of respite and relief to both wind players and audience. Faced with extreme expressive demands (long slides, sudden dynamics and abrupt key changes), the strings of the Winston-Salem Symphony shone with a warm and glowing luster. The Rondo-Finale which follows without a pause is the most cohesive and straight forward movement of the symphony with many up-tempo quotations of the previous movement and much counterpoint (several melodic lines playing simultaneously, as opposed, for example, to the harmonic writing of most hymns). It ends the long and complex work in a jauntily happy mood!

Mahler often calls for the winds to point their bells upward, which might make them slightly louder, and which, in the case of the woodwinds, alters the embouchure (the position of lip and jaw vis-à-vis the reed or mouthpiece) and perhaps the tone, but certainly makes the players feel awkward! Most musicians seek to match a composer’s emotional mood by changing the tone or color of their sound. Sometimes composers will instruct the musician to play on a certain string (fatter, lower strings are less shrill) or to use a mute, for both strings and brass instruments, but usually adaptation to the spirit of the music is left to the players. Singers are among the most versatile musicians from this expressive point of view; among the instruments, the organ has the most possibilities, the piano, perhaps the least. Reed players (oboe, bassoon, clarinet and saxophone) can modify their reeds slightly or change their mouthpieces.

The concert opened with a beautiful short work for sixteen solo voices and orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams, "Serenade to Music," a piece program annotator David Levy describes as some of Vaughan William’s “most rapturous and sensuous music.” It was indeed beautifully played and sung, with each singer having his or her own solo moment. We are indebted to Maestro Moody for having selected this rarely heard masterpiece. There were moments of imbalance, where the orchestra covered the gorgeous solo of concertmaster Corine Brouwer or drowned out the group of singers, but this could have been due to the singers themselves, who were singing toward the audience on the main floor rather than to those of us who usually prefer the acoustics of the balcony!

The fifteen-minute work was followed by a half-hour intermission caused by an unfortunate accident to a clarinet, which had to be replaced by an emergency hand delivery to the stage door!