There is this moment in the middle of the fifth movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, ‘Resurrection’ where the strings are swirling, the percussion is crashing, the winds are rising to the high heavens, and you look at the quiet choir and soloists and think, “Oh yeah, this thing is going to get even more epic.”
And it sure did Friday night in the Lexington Philharmonic‘s season opener which brought together the heavily augmented orchestra, a pair of world-class soloists and the combined forces of four college choirs in the greatest ensemble performance I have ever seen on the stage of the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall.
In recent years, epic masterworks have been the province of the home band, the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, which delivered massive pieces such as Hector Berlioz’s Requiem, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and a couple Mahler 2s in outstanding performances. And college orchestras do have advantages when they want to present works such as these, because director John Nardolillo simply has to cast lines into the School of Music’s various instrumental studios for more musicians. It gives more students opportunities to perform. A professional orchestra like the Philharmonic has to stroke checks to all those players, making the accounting more challenging.
But it was well worth the money and effort the orchestra put into this season opener.
One of the things that makes the epic pieces work is they are not massive for massive’s sake. They deploy the forces at hand judiciously, making music, not noise. Maybe no other piece does this as well as the Resurrection symphony which, particularly in its first four movements, sometimes lets you forget what exactly is on hand.
While we do open with ominous rounds of deep C strings we also have playful moments and amazing exercises in subtlety, like the violas’ foreboding, barely audible suspended note toward the end of the first movement. Mahler puts no one in the spotlight, even the vocal soloists, for long in this work. But the players made the most of their moments, from the violins to the winds, flutist Pei-San Chiu reasserting her status as the Philharmonic’s secret weapon (something that will be less secretive come Nov. 13, when she is a featured soloist with the orchestra). Clarinetist Mike Accord shared an exquisite moment blending with mezzo-soprano soloist J’nai Bridges in her fourth movement solo.
Conductor Scott Terrell’s best work of the night may have been the seamless blends he achieved between Bridges, soprano soloist Karen Slack (a Lexington resident we need to hear more from) and the combined choirs of Asbury University, Berea College, Eastern Kentucky University and Transylvania University. This quartet of choirs, combined for just a few rehearsals, nailed the emotion of Mahler’s life-and-death work in a performance that my 16-year-old violinist son succinctly described saying, #choironfleek.
Another highlight was the off-stage horns and percussion, a trademark of this work, who were tack-sharp under the direction of conductor Marcello Cormio, a veteran of some of UK’s monsterworks.
And that is what made this performance sing. It was huge, it was challenging. But throughout the ensemble, they captured the emotion of this cathartic work and delivered it to a who’s who Lexington audience that packed the Singletary Center and included Terrell’s predecessor, Maestro George Zack, and Secretariat owner Penny Chenery.
And after Friday’s performance, people had to wonder the same thing folks asked in 1973, after Big Red crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs: What are you going to do for an encore?