It's always an occasion when Mahler's on the program. It becomes even more so when it's also the first time a major symphonic work is performed in the city.
Remarkably, it's taken 65 years for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra to première Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 7 in E minor, an inexplicable fact worth pondering. Friday night's concert featured the massive, 80-minute piece (no intermission), led with verve by maestro Alexander Mickelthwate, as the sole work on the bill.
Completed in 1905, the five-movement piece is, arguably, one of the Austrian composer's lesser-appreciated works, eclipsed by his earlier symphonies. Still, the seventh fully displays Mahler's extraordinary ear for orchestration, with the work teeming with pastoral cowbells, bird calls and hunting horns, as well as a rich palette of colourful instrumental effects, including viciously snapped pizzicato that must make every string player shudder in fear.
After a brief introduction in which he set the tone for what was to come, Mickelthwate immediately imbued the lengthy first movement, Langsam Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo, with requisite grandeur underpinned by an underlying, brooding ethos. After a fiery start, including some overzealous horns, the music gave way to a funereal march punctuated by sharply dotted rhythms before melting into a sentimental Viennese waltz signalled by principal trumpet Brian Sykora.
The second section, inspired by Dutch artist Rembrandt's painting Night Watch, is the first of two Nachtmusik (Night Music) movements that form the bedrock of this work. Following a soulful horn introduction, the more lightly textured movement offered the first real taste of Mahler's compositional genius, despite excessively loud, clanging cowbells that made one wonder if bovines had entered the hall.
Mickelthwate's dramatic handling of the final moment when the piece descends into silence proved exactly right.
Then it became time for the Scherzo, rife with dark forces and musical demons. As one the most nightmarish pieces in Mahler's canon, this section could have gone even further with more dramatic contrast and greater dynamic range.
By contrast, the fourth movement, Nachtmusik II, showcased the always elegant playing of WSO concertmaster Gwen Hoebig, who performed the opening amoroso theme with sensitive grace and understanding. The maestro ably swept through the gentle twists and turns of the chamber music that added Alan Nagelberg's folksy guitar and Skender Sefa's mandolin to the mix.
The finale Rondo-Finale that parodies Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg unleashed the full orchestra in all its pent-up fury, including a fortississimo (or more) brass section. This buoyant capper is one that has borne controversy over the years for its seemingly ill fit with the rest of the sombre work. However, you can't deny its sheer power and ability to stir, especially when the tubular bells joyously peal during the final bars. At the end of this historic night, it also added its own celebratory end note for a concert that, in itself, became a triumph for these hard-working musicans and their fearless leader, who received, as expected, a rousing standing ovation.
The concert repeats Saturday night at the Centennial Concert Hall, 8 p.m.
Centennial Concert Hall
Four stars out of five