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Margo Kline: Symphony Masterful with ‘Mighty Mahler’

The Santa Barbara ensemble makes the Fifth sound effortless

Billed as “Mighty Mahler,” the Santa Barbara Symphony’s weekend offering at The Granada was Gustav Mahler’s transcendent Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor, which was received with richly deserved audience acclaim.

This symphony is the landmark work that heralds Mahler’s elevation from the last of the great Romantics to the first architect of classical music’s modern period. Maestro Nir Kabaretti conducted, and the orchestra had more than its usual complement of players for the occasion.

The Fifth was composed in the early 1900s, as Mahler was enjoying great professional success: He was the director of the Vienna Court Opera and served as the principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. During this time, he married the love of his life, the much younger Alma Schindler, and they soon were expecting the birth of their first child.

Mahler had written four symphonies by the time he came to this one, all of them reasonably seen as “Romantic.” The Fifth was a departure in many ways, including its structure. At Sunday’s performance, the work was played in its entirety, without intermission, and no other music was played.

It would be difficult to think of any music that could hold its own on the same program. The work is in three parts, the first beginning with a somber Trauermarsch, or “Funeral March,” and the final part ending with a huge Rondo Finale: Allegro giocoso that recapitulates the themes of the previous movements.

From the onset of the first movement, the brasses were in great form as they sounded Mahler’s heroic themes. This is no way lessens the effects of the strings, which in many passages were almost roaring. Mahler worked over the instrumentation of the Fifth for several years before it met his new and exacting standards.

The percussion parts in the symphony initially nearly overwhelmed the rest of the orchestra during rehearsals, according to music historians. Alma Mahler attended a tryout rehearsal in Vienna and later wrote, “I heard each theme in my head while copying the score, but now I could not hear them at all.” At his wife’s urging, Mahler began a years-long process of refining the orchestration, removing much of the percussion and enhancing the rest of the orchestra.

For those who count themselves devotees of Mahler, all the agony was worthwhile. At Sunday’s performance, Kabaretti was tireless in his expressive conducting, and the orchestra came through like champions (something it has been doing regularly of late).

At the conclusion, the audience resounded with cheers, bravos and a standing ovation, which continued for an appreciable time. Kabaretti called on each section in turn to take bows, and the brasses came in for plenty of applause.

British musicologist Michael Kennedy has written that Mahler’s Fifth stands “like a mighty arch at the gateway to 20th century music.”

This was the final concert of the Santa Barbara orchestra’s 2009-10 season, and the work permitted it to end on a very high note indeed.

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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