Bekker, Miami Music Festival Orchestra deliver an impressive Mahler 6
Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is hardly light summer fare. The conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler called it “the first nihilist work in the history of music.” Mahler’s friend Bruno Walter refused to conduct it, saying “it ends in hopelessness and the dark night of the soul.” Once titled “Tragic,” the symphony indeed preceded a period of tragedy in Mahler’s life. At 80-minutes long with frequent shifts in tempo, numerous exposed passages for winds, horns and brass and near-constant demands on the strings, the Sixth is no day at the beach for even a top orchestra.
This was the audacious challenge that Miami Music Festival artistic director Michael Rossi set for his orchestra in its opening concert Saturday night at Barry University’s Broad Performing Arts Center. Asking a summer orchestra of students to perform it with any kind of success seemed, in a word, gutsy.
Yet, under the baton of Yuriy Bekker, concertmaster and principal pops conductor of the Charleston Symphony, the MMF’s 104-piece orchestra stunningly exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. The confident, mostly cohesive performance was at times thrilling and at others beautiful and deeply touching.
There were occasional rough spots. Bekker, who has been with the festival since its beginning in 2014, struggled to keep the orchestra together during some of the quieter passages. But this was a worthy performance that, combined with last week’s lovely staging of La Boheme, showed how far the festival has come in a short time.
Is Mahler’s Sixth really so pessimistic? Although the symphony opens ominously and concludes on a bleak coda that has been described by some as crushing, it certainly has moments of hopefulness. This is a frequent theme of Mahler’s: life is difficult, often devastating, but worth living. Bekker veered in that direction while still capturing a good part of the symphony’s intensity in a well-paced, multilayered reading that expressed the work’s angst without overemphasizing the melodrama.
Any doubt that the student orchestra would be up to the task was answered in the opening march, which here was more militaristic than funereal. Strings were assertive and confident, deep and rich in the lower ranges, singing clear and high in the upper. Winds and horns were clear, the brass, while slightly underpowered, never sounded strained. Mahler often depicts chaos by making the orchestra sound as if it’s about to fall apart, and Bekker put across that chaos while keeping his young players under firm control.
The Andante is one of Mahler’s most beautiful creations, and it was the highlight of the performance—passionate without being overly lush, played with admiral restraint that allowed the beauty of the composer’s richly lyrical melodies to emerge. Of course, this beauty is quickly shattered by the urgency of the Scherzo. It’s a movement of numerous mood changes, from semi-playful to ominous and back again. The orchestra handled the tempo changes well, although a little more playfulness would have been welcome at times.
The fourth movement runs over thirty minutes and opens with a burst of orchestral color, again rendered professionally by the MMF Orchestra. The tuba and violin solos were highlights as was the overall playing by the brass and percussion sections.
Unfortunately, the large size of the orchestra forced the brass to be positioned far off to the side of the stage, almost behind the stage’s front wall, resulting in occasionally muted sound. The emotional impact of the finale, too, was likewise shortchanged because the last hammer blow was delivered from a remote portion of the stage, so we never quite experienced the dark night of the soul.
All in all, though, this was an impressive performance that many professional orchestras would be proud of and bodes well for the orchestra’s next challenge: a concert of Wagner excerpts with superstar soprano Christine Goerke, the fine baritone Alan Held and soloists from the new Miami Wagner Institute next Saturday night at the New World Center in Miami Beach.
The Festival’s Opera Institute presents Broadway Night Tuesday at The Betsy on South Beach and Wednesday at Barry University. Both concerts begin at 7:30 p.m. miamimusicfestival.com
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Sun Jul 10, 2016
at 11:21 am