Schwarz leads Frost Symphony in a powerful Mahler Sixth

By Lawrence Budmen

Gerard Schwarz conducted the Frost Symphony Orchestra in music of Mahler, Dvořák and Gregory J. Watson Saturday night.

Any performance of Gustav Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 6 in A minor is a major event. For a student ensemble, the symphony’s massive forces, length and complex structure presents an especially  daunting task. 

On Saturday night at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall, Gerard Schwarz led the Frost Symphony Orchestra in a well- rehearsed, highly charged reading of the score that would have been a high water mark for any second- or third-tier professional orchestra.

From the onset of the initial Allegro energico, ma non troppo, Schwarz charged the music ahead at fever pitch. Mahler’s dark march theme was given taut urgency and he managed to sustain that tension in the contrasting episodes that followed. Orchestral execution was mostly strong and precise with slips few and far between throughout the 70-minute performance. 

The enlarged brass section was consistently solid and assertive and Schwarz drew a huge sonority from the strings. His astute balancing brought out Mahler’s singular instrumental details. The celesta, ably played by Craig Jordan, seemed to emerge from some distant world. The knife-like velocity of the first movement’s final pages capped a reading that balanced grandeur and probing intensity.

The order of the inner movements remains controversial, Mahler apparently having changed his mind several times. Schwarz opted to play the Scherzo second. He conjured up the music’s macabre aura with even the lӓndler section given an edge. Just in time for Halloween, the spooky side of Mahler was well accounted for. 

Although the symphony was completed in 1903, the Andante moderato is a product of fin de siècle Vienna’s last burst of romanticism. Schwarz gave full rein to the wealth of inspired melody and passion in Mahler’s writing. Two harps and nine basses (placed strategically on the left of the stage) provided a lyrically swirling undercurrent beneath the lustrous strings.

The thirty-minute finale is one of the most distinctive and original movements in the entire symphonic literature. After the beauty of the slow movement, the opening Sostenuto pages seem like a cataclysm. Alarms and sirens sound in eerie profusion as the music veers between tragedy and triumph. Schwarz whipped his forces into a frenzy, the momentum inexorable. 

The three hammer blows struck with devastating force. A brief chorale for trombones and tuba presaged the concluding soft ending which returns to a minor key. Schwarz infused the movement’s struggle between light and dark with impassioned fervor. In an outstanding corporate effort, concertmaster Nash Ryder’s solos, the hard-working percussion and nine sonorous horns took special honors. The long ovation that followed was greatly deserved.

While many conductors program Mahler’s Sixth Symphony as a standalone work, it was the third score heard on Schwarz’s generous program and the concert’s first half was far from negligible. 

Frost faculty member Charles Castleman took solo honors in Dvořák’s Violin Concerto. Brimming full of Czech melody and dance rhythms, this work is a fine showpiece and Castleman’s performance matched the concerto on its own terms. 

Charles Castleman

Unlike the cooler, more objective style of many contemporary violinists, Castleman’s approach is unabashedly romantic and interpretive. In the tradition of Fritz Kreisler, Albert Spalding and Russian violinists of earlier vintage, he is unafraid to bend a phrase or vary vibrato in order to enhance a score’s impact.

It took a few minutes for Castleman to warm up. At first, he was not always audible over the orchestra but once he adjusted to the balances and acoustic, the deep tone of Castleman’s Stradivarius imbued the first movement with searching nostalgia. With his technique still strong and intact, the difficult passages in the instrument’s highest reaches emerged clean and exact. Schwarz effectively pinpointed Dvořák’s colorful wind scoring. 

Castleman phrased the Adagio aristocratically, his tonal depth and line spinning a compelling romanza. He infused the concluding Allegro giocoso with gypsy spirit while phrasing the central episode and coda in broad strokes. Schwarz’s adept accompaniment dovetailed Castleman’s distinctive reading. With many of the violinist’s students in the audience, his performance was greeted with repeated bravos.

The program opened with Four Textures for orchestra by Gregory J. Watson. Composed when Watson was a doctoral student at the Frost school and the winner of the composition faculty’s 2019 composition competition, the works takes its inspiration from four paintings by Mark Rothko. 

A desert-like calm pervades the opening as flute and clarinet play short motifs over pianissimo violins and violas. Gradually, winds and brass fill out the sonic landscape. Drones, underscored by mallet percussion, rise through the ensemble prior to a return of the earlier stasis. Effectively crafted, Watson’s portraits reveal a fine ear for instrumental timbres and restrained dynamics. Associate conductor Kyle Elgarten conducted a lucid traversal, the individual sections of the orchestra given transparent emphasis. The composer was present to acknowledge the audience’s warm applause.

Gerard Schwarz conducts the Frost Symphony Orchestra in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and works by Julia Perry and Aaron Copland 8 p.m. December 4 at the Arsht Center in Miami.

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Sun Oct 31, 2021
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