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REVIEW: Sarasota Orchestra delivers a stunning performance of Mahler's Third Symphony

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In its glorious performance of Gustav Mahler's massive Symphony No. 3 in D minor, Leif Bjaland and the Sarasota Orchestra have given what, for many, is a once in a lifetime experience. Spanning nearly 100 minutes of music, the length, the instrumental, choral and vocal forces required, as well as the musical challenges, make this a highly difficult symphony to program for the majority of orchestras.

It is said in his Third Symphony, Mahler felt he had expressed all he could about nature, mankind, God – life and death – good and evil. It was his longest symphony and the longest in the standard orchestral repertoire. Daunting, perhaps, but much like Tolstoy's "War and Peace," a 1,400 pg novel encompassing many of the same topics, so richly satisfying to experience.

Ah, but to hear it in a rare live performance, and one so superbly delivered as this, will be unforgettable.

It is incredible to think that the orchestra Bjaland first led in 1997 could have ever tackled this work. Even five years ago, it would have been a stretch. Now, the brass section has the solid chops and buzzy edge to cut through so cleanly. I can't name everyone, but principal trombone Brad Williams should be quite proud of his solo recitative. Principal trumpet Gregory Knudsen as well was spot on with smoothly soaring solos on and off stage. The entire horn section, eight of them, deserved a solo bow.

Artistic Director Leif Bjaland

Bjaland knows his orchestra and sculpted the contours of color and phrase with a wonderful mix of muscle and sophistication. At times the lower strings had such resonance and force to match the brass. Violins, violas, all the woodwinds, percussion played with such focus in this marathon of music.

Concertmaster Dan Jordan was both a lovely and robust solo voice rising periodically.

Only in the fourth movement, about one hour in, do the voices enter. The alto soloist, Jennifer Hines, at first seemed to have a strangely uncomfortable color to her very deep voice, but with time it was clear that it was slightly flat throughout. This pertained to pitch as well as expression unfortunately.

There was more that could have been delivered with the text by Friedrich Nietszche. The women of the Key Chorale were closer to angelic in their part, and the Sarasota Young Voices even more so. But the evening belonged to the orchestra once again.

However, we must also acknowledge the risk taken in programming this work. The supposed American disinterest in Mahler is a mystery to me given that he was such a deep influence on the golden age of American film music from the 1930s to at least 1960. His complex late Romanticism and orchestration was drawn on fully by his student Max Steiner, considered the "Father of American Film Music." As the grandfather, shouldn't Mahler deserve more love from us?

This is not to say that the audience at the Sarasota Orchestra performance was not appreciative. There was a rush of emotional applause, a standing ovation and cheers, while some poor souls with closed minds left early. For myself, I cried as the final movement worked into my soul and I sat there grateful.

Simply grateful.

CONCERT REVIEW
MASTERWORKS. Sarasota Orchestra, Leif Bjaland, conductor; Jennifer Hines, alto; Women of the Key Chorale; Sarasota Young Voices. Reviewed April 1 at the Neel Performing Arts Center. Additional performance at 2:30 p.m. today at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Tickets $29-$79. 953-3434; www.sarasotaorchestra.org
Last modified: April 2, 2011
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