Admirable performances of two major works and a beautifully wrought solo by guest soprano Harolyn Blackwell provided a distinguished close to the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra's 1989-1990 season Saturday night at Fairfax High School.
Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and Mahler's Fourth Symphony are each from the lighter side of their respective composers' works, but each also is filled with subtlety and mature, compelling musical ideas.
Building on the opening -- a peaceful, nicely paced poco sostenuto -- conductor William Hudson created a smooth but somewhat risk-free environment that permeated the entire performance of the Beethoven.
The strings in particular benefited from the easy pace. Overall, they played with excellent tone and gave wonderful shape to the longer musical lines. Occasional gestures, such as four quick rising notes in the first movement, were not together, but all-in-all it was top-notch playing.
Even the violas, which rarely are given a moment in the sun, were notable: Their countermelody that opened the second movement was beautifully wrought, as was the cellos' tune. Hudson gave this movement a good, brisk tempo in keeping with the allegretto marking.
It was a little surprising that wind and brass ensemble playing did not match the level of the strings. Individual solos mostly were fine, as one might expect from the quality of players in the group. But several sloppy attacks and some ensemble passages, such as the first woodwind chorus in the first movement, lacked unity.
The third movement, a scherzo that at times anticipates the brilliant scherzo of the Ninth Symphony, was modestly paced and a little out of balance.
The happy and dancelike allegro con brio was played with conviction and skill, and the rousing finale brought long and well-deserved applause to conductor Hudson and the orchestra.
Mahler's "Symphony No. 4 in G Major" was a perfect partner for the Beethoven: both basically are optimistic works with many themes and ideas founded in the folk idiom, although they are in no way "folk" symphonies.
The performance was the best this reviewer has heard by the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, with the possible exception of Wagner's "Liebestod" last season. The strings continued their fine playing, and the woodwinds and brass improved their ensemble. Strong phrasing and accents, which have been lacking in other performances, were present in full measure and, with a few exceptions, there was a satisfying level of intensity.
There were a few problems. In the first movement, the opening theme, although crisp enough, was too slow and lacked sparkle; and the crashing climax needed more buildup before and more atmospherics afterward. And the strings' tone became a little thin on the very high, soft notes.
Overall, there was slight tentativeness -- the same lack of risk heard in the Beethoven -- that weakened a few of the climaxes but, paradoxically, seemed to contribute to the careful treatment of the many wonderful subtleties in the score. For instance, the opening of the third movement, distinguished by beautiful cello work and a fine solo by oboist Daniel Doescher, was soft, warm, inviting and beautifully sad. And the end was a picture of heavenly peace. But the climax needed more bite and more depth. It was not quite gut-wrenching, but should have been.
The last movement of this tender but deep work is simply a song. "Das himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life") is an innocent and childlike view of the wonders of heaven compared with earth, told in simple, homely words and subtle, transcendent music. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect interpretation than that of Blackwell. Her voice had every bit of intended innocence, yet was fully vibrant and deeply affecting. The words of the poem were crystal clear and gently and lovingly shaped. Hudson and the orchestra were responsive partners to create a moving conclusion to Mahler's masterpiece.
This performance marked the group's last appearance at Fairfax High School. Next season, they will perform at the new Center for the Arts at George Mason University.