M stands for March, Mahler, Mendelssohn, musicians and even maestro Alexander Mickelthwate. All of the above were on the bill Friday night when the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra performed its latest concert of its — you guessed — Masterworks series.
The program led by Mickelthwate featured dynamo German violinist Augustin Hadelich performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, one of the cornerstones in the violin repertoire fondly dubbed the "heart's jewel." But make no mistake, the three-movement work is no sentimental walk in the park; instead, its three relentlessly driving movements teem with nail-biting technical feats that could easily topple lesser artists.
Fortunately, we were in very good hands with the German soloist, 29, who has transcended his own daunting life challenges, including a catastrophic fire as a young teen that nearly destroyed his fledgling career. The virtuoso musician -- having successfully recovered -- now maintains an active concert career, with recent dates including the Buffalo Philharmonic, Dallas Symphony, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, among others.
Hadelich immediately launched into the first movement Allegro molto appassionata with pitch perfect intonation and clear phrasing. He dazzled with sheer bravura, effortlessly whipping off technical runs and furious trills that became part of his overall sonic palette.
The second movement Andante displayed his lighter, sweet tone, with the fully engaged violinist joining the orchestra as though in thoughtful, contemplative dialogue. He instilled such playfulness in the finale Allegretto non troppo, merrily tossing off runs on a single up-bow, you could not help but feel his pure joy at music-making.
After receiving a spontaneous standing ovation, the charismatic player treated us to an encore: Paganini's Caprice No. 5, that elicited an audible "wow" from a suitably impressed audience member. Even the orchestra applauded -- especially the equally impressed violin section.
The WSO appears to be sifting through its treasure trove these days to resurrect seldom-performed works. Last performed here in 1990 with guest soprano Henriette Schellenberg (Bramwell Tovey, conducting), Mahler's Symphony No. 4 in G Major is one of the revered composer's most accessible works, compact both in orchestral forces and idiomatic musical language.
The maestro set a relaxed tempo in the first movement Bed§chtig that begins with its signature sleigh bell theme. At first this threatened to sap the piece's momentum: however, Mickelthwate proceeded to show us his intention, allowing the music to ebb and flow as individual wind players were highlighted, slowly building in strength.
The scherzo featured concertmaster Gwen Hoebig soloing on a second violin tuned one tone higher -- the bane of any musician with perfect pitch -- as the "Freund Hein" death figure rears its menacing, skeletal head. No matter how many times one hears this work (and we've been waiting since 1990), the effect is always startling and wholly Mahler-esque.
The third movement Ruhevoll unfolds as a smoothly flowing set of variations that alternate between string and wind sonorities.
The hallmark of this work, of course, is its finale Sehr behaglich, with Winnipeg-based soprano Monica Huisman taking the stage. The popular singer performed the song depicting heaven with eloquent simplicity, her own warm voice rising as though in the company of angels.
The concert repeats tonight at 8 p.m. at the Centennial Concert Hall, with a Sunday matinee set for Brandon's Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium at 3 p.m.