U-Md.’s summer festival orchestra shines in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

June 23, 2013

The University of Maryland’s summer festival orchestra gave the second of its three programs Saturday evening, scaling one of the highest mountains in the literature: Mahler’s grim Sixth Symphony. Conductor Asher Fisch, who had the group playing above itself last year in Mahler’s Third, drew even finer playing in this more concentrated work.

The National Orchestral Institute is composed of conservatory students from around the country, admitted by audition, who spend three intensive weeks working together on major works of the repertoire, including coaching from principal players of top U.S. orchestras. The average age is about 22, and most have the goal of entering the profession. So the motivation is high, and Fisch had a very strong group to work with this year.

His stick technique is not all that sophisticated — too often the hands just mirror each other, and the beat itself isn’t particularly expressive. But his passion for the music comes through in every bar, and in his many hours of rehearsal, he has clearly bonded with the young musicians. With that, plus the detailed sectional work by the coaches (which of course wouldn’t happen in a professional orchestra), the performance of this draining piece was of fully professional quality. There were some seams when a musical line was passed through various wind instruments, and there wasn’t uniform intensity in the strings. But Fisch pulled everything together with unflagging concentration.

Would that the same could be said of the Mozart piano concerto that came first (No. 17 in G). While the orchestra was, of course, reduced, it wasn’t reduced nearly enough — five double basses, for example. Fisch, busy playing the solo part (including a memory slip in the first movement’s exposition), simply put up with the clotted textures. The second violins were virtually inaudible throughout the performance, and sustained lines from the winds buried the piano frequently. The G minor variation in the finale had some magic, but overall, the performance was a miscalculation on several levels.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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