Music review: Fairfax Symphony Orchestra’s Mahler tribute

May 15, 2011

For the centenary of Gustav Mahler’s death this year, local ensembles are performing the most popular works from his monumental cycle of symphonies. On Saturday night, the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra staged a symbolic resurrection with the Austrian composer’s perennially performed Second Symphony, at the George Mason University Center for the Arts.

This was not a performance that produced revelations, more slow-burning than incendiary, but it was a respectable effort emblematic of Music Director Christopher Zimmermann’s attempts to raise the FSO to the next level. The Fairfax Choral Society and the Reston Chorale joined forces to produce the necessary wallop of vocal sound in the final movement, with a veiled, intense pianissimo at the choral entrance. All sections of the orchestra acquitted themselves honorably, some slightly unpleasant squealing from the high woodwinds aside. Zimmermann led with a foursquare approach, choosing some unusual tempos and making small adjustments to help the musicians recover from some ragged misalignments of ensemble, and not only with the many offstage contributions.

The Second Symphony, as Theodor Adorno once memorably put it, is “the work through which, probably, most have come to love Mahler,” but it is also “the one likely to fade first.” Indeed, it is fairly easy to get the booming, theatrical parts right or at least right enough to please a crowd, but many individual phrases in the first three movements, even for solo instruments, did not always have room to breathe. The overall sound lacked something glowing and burnished, partially because the small, dry hall does not allow sound to blossom. Mezzo-soprano Janine Hawley was more polite than primeval in the fourth-movement song “Urlicht,” and soprano Jeanine Thames did not have that final bit of needed power to propel her voice over the orchestra at the big climaxes.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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