Saturday, 04 February 2017 14:50

Review: Grand Rapids Symphony uniquely captures complexity of Mozart, Mahler

Written by  Samara Napolitan
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Guest pianist Andrew von Oeyen. Guest pianist Andrew von Oeyen. Courtesy Photo

At “Mozart, Mahler and Marcelo,” the Grand Rapids Symphony presented an evening of musical contrasts.

The program Friday night featured music from two composers who called Vienna, Austria their home in separate eras. Maestro Lehninger led the orchestra in nuanced interpretations of these two very different musical journeys, in collaboration with pianist Andrew von Oeyen, the 1999 winner of Kalamazoo’s Gilmore Young Artist award.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K453 occupied the concert’s first half. The piece is one of 23 piano concertos Mozart wrote in his lifetime, many of which he wrote to perform himself. Von Oeyen gave a tasteful, yet restrained, performance alongside the orchestra.

In the virtuosic solo passages, von Oeyen allowed the trademarks of Mozart’s style (balance, clarity and delicacy) to shine without adding any overly-dramatic flourishes. The woodwind section owned its important role of driving the musical conversation in the first and second sections of the piece. During the finale, von Oeyen articulated variations with quick-witted lightness — evocative of Mozart’s famed pet starling, the singing of which is sometimes said to have inspired the tune.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, featured in the concert’s second half, is a complex and intense journey through darkness to light. Mahler began writing the piece in the summer of 1901 as he was recovering from a near-death experience. That autumn, he would meet his future wife, the beautiful and intelligent Alma Schindler.

Mahler’s grappling with mortality and his subsequent arrival at a renewed life outlook charts the course of the colossal five-movement work. The Grand Rapids Symphony presented an effective interpretation with close attention to the conflict the work aims to resolve.

With a solemn, militaristic call, Principal Trumpet Charley Lea set the tone for the Funeral March that opens the piece. What followed was a weaving of optimism and gloom as the brass section forcefully responded to a lilting violin passage.

The orchestra transitioned quickly to the second movement — a strategic move on the Maestro’s part, since they are intended to be grouped together as one unit. A melody from the cellos conveyed the depths of sorrow, the percussion section added dramatic punctuation, and a stormy atmosphere reached its peak.

The lively third movement began with a particular moment of delight as Principal Horn Richard Britsch traveled to the front of the orchestra. It’s not often that a horn player appears at this stage location (a shame, because the horn is a lovely instrument). Britsch was entertaining to watch and gave a heroic performance.

The fourth movement is one of Mahler’s most recognizable works, and is widely accepted as a love letter from the composer to Alma. The Grand Rapids Symphony opted for a more pensive approach, rather than the hyperemotional take that is heard in some recordings. This had its benefits — the quiet disparity made for a powerful and triumphant finale, and as such, the lengthy standing ovation well-deserved.

To experience this for oneself, visit the Grand Rapids Symphony tonight at 8 p.m.

Miss the concert? To hear a rebroadcast, listen to Blue Lake Public Radio on April 23, 2017, beginning at 1 p.m.

Mozart, Mahler and Marcelo
Devos Performance Hall
300 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 100, Grand Rapids
Feb. 4, 8 p.m., (616) 454-9451

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