IN: Reviews

Mercury Orchestra Plays Like a Pro


Channing Yu (file photo)
Channing Yu (file photo)

Channing Yu brought his assembled orchestra, chorus and soloists together for an ambitious Saturday evening, tackling the sometimes inscrutable Mahler Second Symphony.

True confession: I had attended this concert more as a favor to a friend than out of choice, and wasn’t in the mood for a piece of this scope and depth on a summer’s evening. Echoes of the first performance I heard of the work are still in my ears nearly half a century later: Leonard Bernstein conducted it with the Cleveland Orchestra, a pairing that turned into magic at the first season of the Blossom Festival back in 1969. I recall that the audience gasped at the conclusion of the 4th movement when a whippoorwill sang at the exact moment the orchestra died away. That whippoorwill knew something we all did: that we had been in the presence of transcendence. Students at the Blossom Music Center had been allowed to attend Bernstein’s rehearsals, and it was astounding to see how he dealt with the magnificent Cleveland players. (Those were the last days of the legendary George Szell, and the players were—we could see—shocked by the differences between him and Bernstein. But they played as though their lives depended on it that sultry night in Northern Ohio.)

So, on Saturday evening I needed to be convinced that I was in the right place. It took about three minutes for me to realize that we were in for much more of a satisfying evening than I would have dreamed possible. “The Mercury Orchestra brings together more than 100 of the most talented amateur musicians in the Cambridge/Boston area,” according to their mission statement, yet barely did the word amateur pass my mind for the rest of the evening, and the music spoke lucidly through Lu’s grasp of the score and his fine band of players. He conducted with a clear, somewhat modest but compelling style, and the music quickly was made to speak for itself. If there were a few moments of tuning issues in the woodwinds, the strings and winds had fewer, and all were barely brief distractions. (Perhaps it is worth nothing that there were three professionals on stage: Yu, and the two vocal soloists.)

Often at concerts of community orchestras in and out of Boston, one searches the personnel list for some of our splendid local ringers who are called in to “round out” the forces and smooth out certain treacherous moments. I searched in vain for even one of these professionals, who were collectively notable by their absence from this group. We are blessed in this city to have many devoted players, but how could this group essay something so demanding as the Mahler Second?

Beautiful music making often has the effect of making even a long piece pass before we realize what we have heard, and in the best way, this performance felt that way. The first movement was handled with appropriate pacing and fiery contrast, drama, and intensity, together with an eye for line and forward thrust which balanced some of the lighter as well as richer moments of this paean of life and death. The outbursts of brass and percussion made eminent sense in the overall scheme of things, and especially climaxes were dealt with appropriately without fuss, but with immense impact.

The usual pause of at least five minutes after the first movement (suggested by the composer) was observed, after which the lovely “Ländler” seemed to fit right into the emerging pattern of the symphony. Often, this second movement can seem out of place, and at the 1910 Paris performance, Mahler was mortified when Debussy, Pierne and Dukas all walked out of the performance during this movement. I looked back in the program to convince myself again that this was an “amateur” group, because much of the delicate string and woodwind voicings were so beautifully handled. The recap actually brought tears to my eyes: I was hooked.

Movement three (described in the excellent program notes as “confusion of life”) was delivered as a perfect prelude to the ravishing Urlicht,” one of the famous “Wunderhorn” songs, with enhanced orchestration. This was sung with gorgeous shading and intensity by Sarah Rose Taylor, a New York mezzo-soprano whose clarity and focus brought the audience to rapt attention, setting just the right mood for the transition to the drama of the final movement. (No whippoorwill sang this time, but we had no need of it, actually.)

The fifth movement can often seem more to be a collection of motives from the preceding movements than an organic, focused entity, but everything made sense in this performance. The offstage brass did much more than simply stay on cue and with the beat: it felt as though heaven itself was calling us. Anne Harley’s clear soprano rang out beautifully, emerging from the chorus as a lovely bird appearing out of a tree, and Sarah Taylor again brought just the right feeling, so that the abandoning of pain and death was certain. The Dies Irae, heard so many times in this symphony, seemed gentler and more forgiving of all our frailties. Finally, the glorious Mahlerian yearning for joy and exultation emerged and led to the amazing conclusion of this symphony, this time with just the right pacing and exuberance. The chorus sounded strong and rich, especially considering the size of the group. The audience erupted with applause and a standing ovation, this time a truly deserved one.

If this is amateur playing, bring it on! Channing Yu and his forces achieved a miracle in Sanders on Saturday evening, and the excellent crowd was given the great gift of listening to a group of players, singers and conductor who truly put the music first, therefore touching us in our deepest beings.

Brian Jones is Emeritus Director of Music & Organist of Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston. He is conductor of the Copley Singers, a Boston-based semi-professional choir, and is active as a guest conductor, and organ solo artist. He has appeared throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, Mexico, England, and Bermuda. His recordings are on the London-Polygram, Gothic, Dorian and AFKA labels.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Brian’s comments echo my own – as one who has sung Mahler 2 many times in Boston, New York and Tanglewood, (and sang it with Mercury on Saturday evening) , I have to say that as I approached it, i did so with some trepidation, but also knowing that Channing Yu is a superb musician, and could mold the players into an organized whole. I watched as the orchestra not only internalized the notes, but the direction that Mahler was moving. They understood on an intellectual and emotional level the overall scope of his resurrection motif and put meaning into a performance that was far more than the sum of the parts.

    The first rehearsal when Sarah Rose Taylor came in at her first entrance, I had a view of where this performance might go, and by concert evening, I was pretty sure this was something special. But every performance of any live work is different, and one never knows at what time lightning will strike.

    The manner in which these “amateurs” held the audience’s attention, and the depth of feeling communicated in this dynamic performance, was unique in my experience. Every conductor has a different take, a different lens that he or she alone sees the piece through, and the conductor tries to communicate that to the orchestra. The orchestra, in turn, attempts to respond to that vision in a way that is informed by their experience and the clarity of that vision. This particular orchestra had Channing Yu’s and Mahler’s visions both in sharp focus, and were able to leverage their considerable abilities to create a performance that was fluid and knowing, angry and yet at times tender, and at the end, awestruck and calling for us all to Bereite dich zu leben (prepare yourself to live). The word amateur does not convey the depth of performance, nor the talent encompassed in this group. But the descriptive adjective aside, this was at the very top of the most memorable, heartfelt, Mahler2 performances in my experience.

    Comment by Richard Oedel — July 22, 2014 at 7:02 am

  2. All good to hear. However, when all is said and done, the ensemble are, in fact amateurs and not “amateurs”.

    Comment by philip johnson — July 23, 2014 at 9:17 am

  3. I second Richard’s sentiments that this was a memorable and heartfelt performance. This was my third excursion into the Mahler 2, having previously performed it at Yale’s Woolsey Hall (including Newberry Memorial Organ made by Hutchings-Votey, expanded by Steere & Son, and later Skinner-Harrison) and San Francisco’s Davies Hall (including Rufatti organ); the lack of pipes in Sanders Theater was more than made-up-for by the resplendent playing of the Mercury percussion and brass. As the final chord faded away, the audience was suspended in silent rapture until a singular “Bravo!” broke the spell, following which the audience erupted into applause. I’m sure they felt close to Heaven then.

    Comment by Marco Bonito — July 23, 2014 at 2:58 pm

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