The Sacramento Philharmonic is back! And that will be a very good thing for lovers of symphonic music in and around Sacramento if the orchestra’s Resurrection Concert is any indication of the quality of the performances the musicians will provide their patrons.
The concert late last month opened with an air of celebration as Congresswoman Doris Matsui addressed a large, if not capacity, audience in the Community Center Theater. The expectations of the audience were so great that Ms. Matsui’s remarks, otherwise rather pedestrian, were greeted with applause after just about every sentence.
“Tonight we celebrate the return of music to our great city.” (Applause.) “And isn’t it great to see these wonderful musicians again?” (Applause.) “Think how much music adds to the quality of our lives and our community.” (Applause.) “And this can only happen because of all of you.” (Applause.)
You get the picture.
In any event, it was a great night, as the program was almost entirely devoted to Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection,” which most orchestras avoid for the simple reason that it is exceedingly challenging, demanding and altogether difficult to perform. (The fact that it lasts almost 90 minutes is another reason.) It is one of those symphonic works that could fill an entire concert, and it probably should have on this occasion. But, instead, the program began, after the speeches, with a rather uninspired performance of Vaughn Williams’ “Concerto Grosso,” a five-movement, 20-minute work for strings for which the string section of the Philharmonic was supplemented with about 20 young musicians from the Philharmonic’s Community Players.
Suffice to say that the added players did not embellish the performance, especially when, at the end of the fourth movement, several violins were heard distinctly out of tune (flat) in the closing chord. For the rest, the piece was little more than an excuse to have an intermission, which is fine if an audience needs one after fifteen minutes of speeches and twenty minutes of music.
But enough quibbling about trivialities. The pièce de résistance was what made this evening memorable, and memorable it most definitely was. Led by guest conductor Andrew Grams, who seemed very comfortable with the musicians and singers (and they with him), the orchestra re-established the high quality of its past performances in the 25-minute opening movement. That movement is almost a stand-alone symphonic work. In fact, Mahler so intended it when he first wrote it in 1888, dubbing it “Totenfeier” (“Funeral Rites”). As music for a funeral it is filled with fury and anger much more than with solemnity and sorrow.
In his notes for the full symphony, Mahler asks for a five-minute break after the first movement. Such a break may not have been intended by Maestro Gram, but as things developed, a five-minute break was just what happened. (Principal Cellist Robin Bonnell had to leave the stage at the end of the first movement to repair his instrument. In his absence, the conductor spoke casually to the audience.)
The second movement was as low key as the first was bombastic, and it was far shorter. The third was more bombast, but also short. And for the fourth, Mezzo-Soprano Kelley O’Connor offered a lovely voice for the “Primal Light” prayer. She received a nice ovation at its conclusion.
But the real greatness of this symphony is in its fifth movement, the “Resurrection.” It consists of two parts. The first is instrumental and follows much the same tone as the first and third movements. An added feature, however, is the designation of a small group of horns and a flute off stage on the left and right. Those groups echo some of the themes the on-stage musicians are playing. Conducting those off-stage musicians is a magician’s task, but Mr. Grams seemed in control of their entrances, and the musicians, save for a few errant notes from the trumpets, did the rest.
This first part of the last movement also features the percussion section. The five percussionists (and two timpanists) were all stationed on the right front of the stage, and their performances were a highlight of the concert, with chimes, cymbals, triangles, gongs and drums all used to full effect at various points. (You have to know Mahler to appreciate some of this description. Suffice to say, it is dramatic music, unique to his brilliance.) Happily, the percussionists on this evening were superb.
And so was the chorus (75 voices strong for this performance), which takes over the second part of the movement with the Resurrection poem. We were told that the full complement of musicians and singers had only four hours of rehearsal before the concert; if true, great credit must go to all concerned, but especially to Mr. Grams, for the result was a near-perfect performance, which ended with the most powerful of codas.
The audience was quickly on its collective feet in a sustained ovation as soon as the final fortissimo chord had been struck. Mr. Grams, in returning for bows three times, noted the work of his percussion, brass, and woodwind sections, along with his soloists (Ms. O’Connor and soprano Christine Brandes) and his chorus. It was a performance that should increase interest in the renewed, and resurrected, Sacramento Philharmonic, which will be most welcome to lovers of symphonic music in and around California’s capital city.