Sunday, March 24, 2024

Mahler 5, Haydn, and Gabriela Ortiz at Pacific Symphony

The Pacific Symphony Orchestra, at very full strength, playing Mahler's Fifth Symphony under
guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

For the second time in under a week, we had a SoCal concert featuring an unusually long main work—but not quite long enough to fill the entire evening, and so bringing the challenge of how to populate a 25-30 minute first half. On Saturday, March 9, in Long Beach it was Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem with two well-chosen companion pieces (reviewed here); the following Thursday in Costa Mesa the Pacific Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto (left) gave us Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor, plus…?

The mighty Hoboken catalog of all the works by or attributed to Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) lists no fewer than six cello concertos but of these, two are deemed lost and two more labeled “spurious,” leaving just two actually surviving and performable—and even they had to wait until mid-20th century to be authenticated through the discovery of original manuscripts.

Joseph Haydn, c. 1770.
Haydn’s Cello Concerto 1 in C major, Hob. VIIb/1, composed between 1761 and 1765 for a star cellist in the court orchestra of his employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, only resurfaced in 1961, but since then has become well established in the repertoire. Here it filled most of the available time in the first half, played by the young American cellist Sterling Elliott.

Given that the concerto is only scored for pairs of oboes and horns, the Pacific Symphony’s string strength was pared right down to 6-6-4-3-2, but with a spacious though strongly propulsive forward response to the initial Moderato marking, it felt like a “big” performance from the outset, within which Mr. Elliott’s playing was full of nuance, with singing tone, plenty of dynamic shading, and fleet as a gull riding thermals when needed.

Sterling Elliott.
The Adagio, notably slow even for that marking, was hushed and intimate, with the soloist’s tone reduced to the slenderest of threads at times, while the Allegro molto finale scurried deliciously, with dynamic contrasts sharply observed, and Mr. Elliott’s response as fabulously crisp as his playing in the slow movement had been tender. After a standing ovation, he came back for an encore, Julie-O, by Mark Summer (b.1958).

This concerto by itself would have been a perfectly decent first-half filler for a work as massive as Mahler 5, but Señor Prieta added a five-minute opener, Kauyumari by Gabriela Ortiz (b. 1964), which had been commissioned in 2021 by the LA Philharmonic for its reopening after Covid.

Gabriela Ortiz.
Freighted with native Mexican symbolism and connotations (Kauyumari means “blue deer,” a kind of spiritual guide), it opens atmospherically with distant trumpets against tam-tam strokes, but then devolves into constant repetition of a fast, syncopated Huichol melody, which with much textural elaboration builds to a frenetic climax.

In his opening remarks, Señor Prieta likened it to Ravel’s Boléro, but to my ears, it had more in common with Chávez’s Sinfonía India. Ultimately, however, it had neither the time-obliterating hypnotic quality of the former nor the hieratic grandeur and melodic memorability of the latter: a short, sharp, skillfully wrought occasional piece, delivered with whiplash response by the Pacific Symphony but as forgettable as it was easy on the ear.

The appearance of any symphony by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) in a present-day concert program always takes me back to post-war Britain when, for a nascent music-lover with a taste for exotic and ambitious rarities, getting to hear any one of them, live or on the radio, was a treasurable once-in-a-blue-moon event. How times have changed! Now Mahler is so ubiquitous that the challenge for any performers is to somehow get beyond over-familiarity and re-ignite some of that sense of specialness.

Portrait of Mahler in 1902, by Emil Orlik.
However, the music itself is on their side. For those not allergic to works so overtly emotional and dramatic, each Mahler symphony charts its own specific and compelling journey, and the Fifth (1901-1902), the first of them to have no connection to the explicitly picturesque Wunderhorn world that permeates the earlier ones, is no exception. Across its unique three-part, five-movement structure it travels as far as any, from the peremptory trumpet-calls that open the first movement Trauermarsch (here delivered with snap-to-attention urgency by Tony Ellis) to the cloudless jubilation that ends the Rondo-Finale.

Though it’s neither scored for quite such huge forces nor is as long in duration as some of its fellows, the Fifth Symphony is, apart from the idyllic oasis of its fourth movement Adagietto, unremittingly turbulent and complex (indeed it is the longest of all of them in terms of measure count, a formidable 2704 bars) and remains a demanding, even exhausting, challenge to any orchestra, however skilled.

After that opening trumpet solo, the impact of the first fortissimo tutti before the funeral march gets properly under way, played by this great orchestra in the gorgeous Segerstrom Concert Hall acoustic, threatened to blow the fuse on any critical response to the performance as such, leaving one just reveling, ears agape, in the sheer beauty of the sound. And indeed, in terms of pacing, ensemble, dynamics, and grasp of structure, Señor Prieta and the Pacific Symphony seemed to me to nail the first movement.

Excellent too was the way they moved with only the briefest of pauses onto the second movement, or other half of Part 1 of the symphony, fully responding to its Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence) marking. Later, Prieta’s way with the ländler second theme was richly expressive but never exaggerated.

However, when the great chorale erupted towards the end of the movement (marked by Mahler Höhepunkt (Climax) just so you don’t miss it!) it was, arguably, just a little too long-drawn and epically magnificent. After all, the movement does then collapse to a stuttering, exhausted end, and the greatest performances here do hold something back and convey by some alchemy that however triumphant the moment seems, it’s essentially precarious.

The centerpiece of Mahler 5, and comprising the whole of its Part 2, is the third movement Scherzo. It’s marked Kraftig nicht zu schnell (Strong, not too fast), and again Maestro Prieta got the speed, and the emphasis, just right. After an opening up-and-down fanfare by four horns, a fifth horn (labeled by Mahler Corno obligato) leads off the weighty dance revels; this Principal Keith Popejoy (left) delivered with robust fruitiness, standing up for extra prominence.

One past commentator labeled this movement a “symphonic ‘parody-Ländler’,” and for most of its length it is indeed a swirling, sonata-form dance hybrid rivaling Ravel’s La valse in its off-kilter savagery, scale, and textural complexity—and in this performance it was played with panache and relish to the hilt by the Pacific Symphony. But in the heart of the development the tumult draws aside for an extended solo by the Corno obligato; this was given a golden sunset aura by Mr. Popejoy (who oddly remained standing for the whole of the movement, even though there are considerable stretches where the Corno obligato does not play).

Mahler's composing hut at Maiernigg,
where he wrote the Fifth Symphony.
However… normally, this mighty scherzo lasts 17-18 minutes, but in Señor Prieta’s interpretation it stretched to around 20, due to what felt like an overly studied and drawn-out account of some of the slower passages, including the long, pizzicato-inflected lead back to the main action after the horn solo. This pulled the thread of continuity dangerously close to breaking-point, but was saved by the pinpoint precision of the Pacific Symphony strings and the eloquence of the woodwind and horn lines above.

This seeming self-indulgence led to concern that the famous Adagietto—the first of the two movements that with the Rondo-Finale comprise the symphony’s Part 3—would be an over-extended snooze-fest, but in the event Prieta’s tempo was once more ideal, bringing the movement in at around the nine-minute mark and keeping the music moving while the Pacific Symphony’s strings and harp (Michelle Temple) delivered it with melting eloquence and sensitivity.

Mahler marks attacca at the link between the Adagietto and Rondo-Finale, so that there’s no break between the former’s long fade to pppp (and yes, the Pacific Symphony strings managed even that extreme marking!) and the latter’s opening sustained horn note, by Mr. Popejoy now relieved of his Corno obligato label and seated. (This continuity is additionally useful now, so that tendencies towards inter-movement applause for the only part of this symphony that everyone knows is always rendered still-born.)

The Rondo-Finale proved to be the coping-stone on what was overall an extremely fine performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. After some built-in hesitancies, he marks the opening of the movement’s main body Allegro giocoso and Frisch (fresh), and Maestro Prieta established just the right mixture of the wide-eyed bucolic and the businesslike.

As the movement progressed he navigated its many discursions without losing grasp of the main thread, with the orchestra seemingly tireless in its articulation of Mahler’s relentless textural complexity so that the music continually danced. Maybe when the final repetition of the second-movement chorale arrived, juiced up by cascading strings, the massed brass showed the smallest signs of fatigue, but who could blame them? Certainly none of the roaringly appreciative audience, showing yet again how Mahler continues to beguile and enthuse 21st-century listeners. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday March 14, 2024, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Doug Gifford; Haydn, Mahler, and Mahler's hut: Wikimedia Commons; Gabriela Ortiz: Composer website.

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