Listening to an orchestra composed largely of students, one’s first thought is of technique. Are they going to get through the score unscathed? During Friday night’s performance of the Mahler Symphony No. 3 at Merrill Auditorium, concerns about technique vanished and the music came through loud and clear.
The sixth and final movement, the great adagio “What love tells me,” was a peak experience, aesthetically and emotionally.
Robert Lehmann conducted the combined forces of the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra, the Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra, the women of the USM Chorale, prepared by Robert Russell, and the Southern Maine Children’s Choir, prepared by Paul McGovern. Mezzo-soprano Teresa Herold (USM Class of 2002) sang the solo part in the fourth and fifth movements.
The Mahler Third, lasting more than 100 minutes, is a major undertaking for any orchestra. This one, in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra, was triumphant.
The extremely long first movement, depicting the awakening of Pan, was the only one that bogged down even slightly, during one of the pianissimo sections, where it was difficult for the orchestra members to hear one another. Still, the depiction of a giant beating heart by the muffled percussion was effective, while the massed brasses were spectacular.
From the end of that movement on, things just got better and better. The transitions from pointillist flower painting to broad flowing meadows in the second movement were just as the composer intended, while the leaping and hopping of the animal movement, No. 3, expressed the pure joy of living, in spite of approaching hunting horns.
Herold was marvelous in “What man tells me,” her rich deep tone perfect for the Nietzsche poem that makes up the section, followed immediately by the choir of women and children’s voices in “What the angels tell me.” The latter bears the indication: “Cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression,” contrasting perfectly with Herold’s somber confession of sin.
The symphony includes some difficult solo work for trumpet, violin and horn, but the award for heroism has to go to the flautist in the final “What love tells me,” (No. 6). Right in the middle of some of the most Romantically lush string music ever written there occurs a long, soulful part for flute, during which one misstep would have spoiled the structure Lehmann was so carefully building. It was played perfectly, in spite of over an hour’s build-up of tension.
The full performance received a well-deserved standing ovation.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Audience section of the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: