Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is a difficult piece to program. Running some ninety-odd minutes, today it either makes for a long program with no intermission, or a lengthy half of a long evening’s program. Mercury Orchestra, a recent addition to the area’s amateur music scene, presented this symphony as the sole work on its July 23 program, running without intermission in Sanders Theatre. Pauses between movements were long (after the first, to allow for the seating of latecomers; otherwise, for musicians to mop, swab, rosin, or catch their breath). The orchestra performed from Kubik’s new critical edition (2010) of Mahler 6 but did not follow Kubik’s latest (2004) thinking on the order of this symphony’s movements. The Scherzo (second movement) preceded the Andante (third movement), following the order of composition and the earliest edition of the symphony, as well as Alma Mahler’s telegraph to William Mengelberg in 1919 (admittedly words of dubious authority). In other words, Channing Yu and Mercury Orchestra performed what Benjamin Zander calls the “composer’s Sixth Symphony” rather than the “conductor’s.”
Given the scope of this symphony, one challenge is to present a whole work, not a work with holes. This performance clearly communicated the long phrases and musical lines of Mahler 6. Themes and ideas merged, evolved, returned across the entire orchestra. The performance was marked by a sense of unity and an organic growth from opening statement to final chord. Throughout the ensemble playing was solid; orchestral sections attuned one to another passed musical ideas back and forth with a grace and subtlety worthy of more established, professional groups. Technique was masterful, intonation solid, conducting clear with good direction; the solid musicianship supported this challenging music and never called undue attention to itself. To perform this work calls for a large orchestra; the program names 104 people on the large but not commodious stage of Sanders Theatre. It is a testament to the cohesion of the orchestra as a whole that they were able to perform so well in close quarters. Throughout the concert, the musicians remained constantly attentive, wholly engaged in the music; this is a model of performance that professional orchestras do not always maintain, so it is all the more remarkable to find this in a large amateur ensemble.
At key places in the symphony, brass and woodwind players lifted their instruments above the music stands to play out. This emphasized the dynamic and tonal variations in Mahler’s score; it also made visible the aural interplay between instruments and sections. Only once did I question the choice of playing out of the stands: at the end of the Scherzo, the clarinet solo following the violin solo presented a jarring contrast in volume. Perhaps here the sound balance was wrong for the space. My only other question is with the cowbells in the Andante and Finale. The bells used sounded thin, tinny. I wondered if I had fallen prey to a myth of resonant and tuned Alpine animal bells, so I consulted various recordings of Mahler 6 (Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony; Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic; Benjamin Zander, Philharmonia Orchestra – a random selection based on what was readily available). In each recording, the bells used were more resonant, richer and fuller in sound. I missed that sound in the Mercury Orchestra performance and wish different bells had been available for this performance. In the sound world of Mahler 6, these are minor, largely subjective, concerns; I only voice them because the performance was otherwise so solid, so well-conceived, that I hold Mercury Orchestra to the same standards of professional performing ensembles.
The accolades at the end of the concert were very well deserved and I heartily joined the house in delivering up lengthy ovations. I do regret the avidity and eagerness which started the applause before the final pizzicato note had finished resonating in the hall: I missed the moment of diminishing sound, the return to heightened silence, the well-earned moment of relaxation accompanied by the self-satisfaction of a successful performance. I think the musicians did, too.
Founded in 2008, the Mercury Orchestra and its conductor Channing Yu have rapidly established themselves as a serious musical force in the area. A community orchestra based in Cambridge that only exists in the summers, it draws its strength from the amateur musicians who populate a number of community orchestras during the regular season (Boston Civic, New England Philharmonic, Brookline Symphony, Lexington Symphony, Quincy Symphony – to name a few). In 2010, Mercury Orchestra was the national winner of the American Prize for Orchestral Performance, community orchestra division, and the same year Channing Yu won the American Prize in Orchestral Conducting. With this background, the bar for any of their concerts is set at a high level. With Mahler 6 they delivered, more than fulfilling expectations.
Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.