Mahler once claimed that "the symphony should contain the world." His Fifth seems to contain a bit more of everything than the rest of his symphonies: austere funeral marches, bad-tempered jokes, over-the-top waltzes, a breathtakingly delicate love song, and a finale that exudes manic energy and contrapuntal wizardry. A modern therapist might express some worry about Mahler's mood swings; this symphony is still a bit shocking in its variety and vehemence, but it's a fascinating work.
If you are a conductor who wants to stake their ground as a Mahler interpreter, I guess the Fifth Symphony is an ideal place to start, and Ward Stare and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra did extremely well by it Thursday night. This was one of the most exciting RPO concerts in a season that has already seen a few.
Stare kept a tight interpretative rein on this symphony, and the tempos were mostly on the quick side. These five tumultuous movements, carefully balanced, create a remarkably detailed but satisfyingly "symphonic" whole. Done right, this outsized work is revealed as a symphony as well-proportioned as any by Haydn or Brahms. Even after playing full out for nearly an hour, the players showed plenty of energy for the triumphant (and long) finale. I felt satisfied, if exhausted, at the end of the symphony, which leads me to think that Stare and the RPO did it right.
The orchestra was rearranged for maximum Mahlerian impact: dividing the violin section and placing the second violins on the right; moving cellos to the left, next to the first violins and placing the basses behind them; separating the horn section from the rest of the brass so they are on opposite sides of the stage.
It worked. From my seat in the 10th row center, the brass tended to drown out everything else occasionally; my guess is that a seat further back or in the balcony might be ideal. Stare asked the horn section (and solo horn Peter Kurau) to take a bow first, and they deserved the accolade, as did trumpeter Doug Prosser, who played the first notes in the piece. This part is a well-known trumpeter's nightmare, but after a very slight bobble on the first triplet, Prosser soared through the rest of its challenges, demonstrating a fruity but focused tone appropriate for Mahler.
The strings made the most of their featured spot (and the symphony's most famous movement), the adagietto; Stare's separation of the first and second violins was especially telling here. Bassoonist Matthew McDonald, oboist Erik Behr, and clarinetist Kenneth Grant each offered a brief but delicious solo at the beginning of the finale.
Stare began the concert with Leonard Slatkin's "Kinah." The word "kinah" is Hebrew for "elegy," and the 13-minute work is a tribute to Slatkin's parents, famous Hollywood musicians (violinist and cellist) and also esteemed chamber music partners. Violinist Felix Slatkin died just before a scheduled performance of the Brahms Double Concerto with his wife, cellist Eleanor Aller, so Leonard's tribute includes subtle references to that work, and fragments of its slow movement is played at the end by an offstage violinist and cellist.
The bits of Brahms are about the most interesting music in "Kinah," which tends to meander. Slatkin's orchestration, at least, has interesting touches; the percussion section includes a glass harmonica -- glasses filled with varying amounts of water and played with a violin bow to produce an eerie sound.
During Thursday's performance, the orchestra also honored five local music educators with its annual RPO Musicians' Awards: Jeanne Coonan, Al Heary, Douglas Steves, M. David Shemancik, and Beverly Smoker.