HT Review: Philharmonic, guest conductor deliver splendid opening with Mahler’s Sixth

A performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A Minor (“Tragic”) clocks in at just under an hour and a half. It takes an army of musicians to play it. The printed program for Wednesday evening’s season-opening concert of the Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring that gigantic work, lists 112 as sitting on stage in the Musical Arts Center, prepared to tackle the task.

Tackled it was. Handled it was. Played with remarkable power and flavor it was. Read with what seemed unified purpose it was. Native talents exhibited by the student musicians were a major factor, of course. As the most proficient of the Jacobs School’s full-sized symphony orchestras, the Phil is expected to do well and rarely fails to meet expectations.

But it also takes a conductor to piece great and greatly difficult music together, a highest-quality sort of conductor. And that Wednesday’s reading of Mahler’s Sixth had in Giancarlo Guerrero, music director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, who scored superior marks on past visits while leading the summer version of the Philharmonic, the Festival Orchestra.

He surely scored on this visit, having chosen a whale of an assignment and, within an all-too-short period of rehearsals, achieving a triumph that left the audience breathlessly quiet during the performance and fortissimo loud right after, with a cheers-filled standing ovation, an extended one.

The mystery was: How could such a performance have been forged in a matter of about two weeks, if that? The school year has just begun, and the Philharmonic has also just been reconstituted, what with a crop of graduates having dropped out of the ranks, leaving a mix of holdovers from last year and newly selected musicians — in other words, a different orchestra. What’s more, additional players had to be found to satisfy the demands called for in Mahler’s score.

Maestro Guerrero revealed nothing but confidence in his leadership and, most obviously, had passed along that confidence to his troops. The orchestra played with amazing assurance and with a shared wisdom about what Mahler’s music seems to be about. In the Sixth, we have what is widely regarded as the composer’s gloomiest symphony, though written at a time in his life when all was glowing at home and in his profession of conducting and writing music, making for a contradiction between life and art.

So, why is this Sixth Symphony labeled “Tragic?” Well, Mahler supplied the label but also dropped it. In history, it stuck. Mahler reportedly considered himself an artist able to foretell the future; perhaps with the Sixth, he did. Just a few years after its premiere in 1905, with him conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, his family life met with tragedy, his health began to fail and his conducting career took blows.

The Sixth has about it a brooding nature leading, in the final movement, to what Mahler referred to as “three hammer-blows of fate.” And what a gigantic hammer one saw and heard at Wednesday’s performance, one larger than those used to drive the weighted ball toward the bell at carnivals. The score sprawls and is undoubtedly cut-able, but emits a drama and mystery that, for a listener, is hard to escape. There is tension from the start, maintained through expositions and developments that fill the ears with lyricisms, with bombardments of anxiety, with complex blends of dissonant tones and jarring rhythms, with moments of tempestuous anger and of hurt and contrasting periods of quiet reflections, with music sounding as if in disarray but also, then, of regimented order: in sum, a vast artistic expression of a mind in turmoil.

Maestro Guerrero took a mammoth score of puzzles and bits. He made of it a whole, a musical tapestry impressively realized by his multitude of players who, along with him, deserved the plaudits rewarded by an audience that came near to filling the Musical Arts Center. Unless a Mahler hater — and the likes of him or her probably stayed clear of Wednesday’s program anyway — one would have been hard-pressed not to appreciate what was accomplished on this occasion.

Come again, Maestro Guerrero. And continue to have a successful season, IU Philharmonic.

You provided a splendid opening.

by Peter Jacobi, The Herald-Times | © Herald-Times Online 2017

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