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.