The National Orchestra Institute hit a home run in its final performance Saturday at the Clarice Smith Center. Led by Israeli conductor Asher Fisch, this orchestra of hand-picked conservatory students from across the country outdid itself in Mahler’s Third Symphony, a work of Himalayan dimensions and difficulty.
It is extremely doubtful that any of these young musicians had played this piece before, but they took on its marathon challenges with an eagerness that filled the hall. Fisch, best known as an opera conductor, was an exacting if sometimes interpretively cautious leader. But whatever he was selling, the orchestra was buying; ensemble, balance and intonation were of professional quality throughout, the first time I’ve been able to say that about an NOI performance.
In a festival group such as this, different players rotate through the coveted principal chairs for each concert. By accident or design, the best ones were leading on Saturday (particularly the concertmaster and principal bass), and the orchestra had grown more cohesive and responsive during its month of work.
There were, of course, individual bobbles among the eight horns, blowing hard all night, and the string players did not produce the kind of creamy, multihued sound in the finale that one hears on recordings. But Fisch had the full measure of the piece and its peculiar challenges, highlighting all of the images in Mahler’s sound world; the overripe string glissandi, the snarling brass, the shrieking piccolos and the feral low strings. He coordinated the offstage post horn solos perfectly and kept the massive percussion section musically proportionate.
The vocal contributions were decent though not as impressive. The Maryland State Boychoir looked about one-third strength, and the University of Maryland Women’s Chorus was also underpowered. Although the singers sounded well-drilled, they were too often covered by the orchestra, which was playing sensitively. Mezzo Stefanie Iranyi drew long, admirably concentrated musical lines in “O Mensch!,” but the sound wasn’t always perfectly centered.
So the night belonged to the musicians of the orchestra, who rose spectacularly to a challenge (and indeed a risk), passing with flying colors.
Battey is a freelance writer.