Witnessing the Kansas City Symphony’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 was an arresting and gratifying experience.
The piece brought to mind the work of M.C. Escher, complicated patterns intricately constructed in a way that seemed organic and flowing. This large-scale work of genius required players of virtuosic ability and strength to bring it to fruition, and that was the case in this performance.
Music director Michael Stern conducted the orchestra in Helzberg Hall on Friday night in a program that also included Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 22.
The programming contrasted two symphonies written over 100 years apart and demonstrated the evolution of the genre from structured and codified to a grand expanse of irrepressible emotion. In the Haydn, which lasted about 20 minutes, the pairings of horn and English horn exhibited well-matched tone and balance, and the third movement’s string dectet was assertive and resonant.
Mahler’s substantial composition, in comparison, extended over an hour, for five movements. The time passed too quickly, though, in this invigorating rendition. As with many of Mahler’s works, it aimed to encompass the experiences of life – sorrow, humor, terror, joy, romance – distilled to music.
Guest principal trumpet Bill Williams played the opening call with perfected gravitas, a presence of absorbing quality and a pure, untarnished tone that proved both delicate and powerful.
The orchestra committed with an aggressive, almost merciless engagement, taking advantage of every raw and forceful opportunity. Fragmented material began in one voice and traveled seamlessly to another. Interruptions came as real surprises, direction changes elicited by spontaneous bursts from the brass, bells-up clarinets, strident strings and percussive hits. The fearless horn section, commanded by principal Alberto Suarez, played as though bringing righteous judgment. Suarez, in numerous solo moments, was a steadying presence with a burnished, amber-hued tone.
There were, as well, numerous occasions of gentle beauty. The Adagietto, written for string ensemble and harp, contrasted to the bombastic treatment with a sun-dappled extended theme of stirring passion. The strings also provided respite during chaotic moments in other movements, offering a languid waltz during the scherzo, sonorous, melancholy soli from the cellos, and a sweet refrain in the final movement.
Nor did Mahler neglect jollity. A jumble of lighthearted figures began the final movement, the bassoons bouncy against the fluttering clarinets.
They ended the work with a triumphal insistence of renewed vigor from the players in a magnificent display.