Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, soloists, and choirs make a mighty sound with Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”

Tue Apr 20, 2010 at 3:38 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jay Friedman led the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest in Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” Monday night at Symphony Center.

Just by definition, any performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 is going to be an event. The large orchestra and massive choral forces called for, the scale and sheer sonic impact of the 80-minute symphony guarantee that.

So, it’s heartening that in an era of economic scarcity, with most arts groups and music organizations pulling back on expensive projects, a suburban orchestra like the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest would even attempt Mahler’s colossus. Yet Monday night at a surprisingly full Symphony Center,  the suburban ensemble, soloists and choirs pulled off a respectable, often excellent performance led by music director Jay Friedman.

Of course, even a top community orchestra can’t approach the level of polish, virtuosity and execution one routinely hears from the CSO on the same stage and there were some chaotic moments, ill wind tuning and raw edges, to be sure.

What was striking, however, was how much of the grandeur, excitement and beauty of this extraordinary work was communicated, and indeed, came through with great force and eloquence. From the bracing opening organ blast and choral explosion of Veni creator spiritus, we were  launched on our way.

While the big climaxes had ample power and robust sonorous impact, what was striking in Monday’s performance was the delicacy and lyric beauty of the quieter moments. Friedman, principal trombone of the CSO, is a very fine conductor and the strings led by concertmaster Charles Pikler, (the CSO’s principal viola) contributed some refined and luminous playing in Part Two, with the mystery and foreboding of the orchestral introduction especially well done.

The soloists were a mixed lot. Kurt Hansen is an experienced Mahlerian but often had to push his lyric tenor to meet the part’s dramatic demands. Baritone Douglas Anderson and bass Peter van de Graaff likewise sounded underpowered, often failing to project over the orchestra.

The female soloists fared better. The finest singing of the evening came from mezzo Tracy Watson (Maria Aegypticus) who sang with a poised purity and touching eloquence. Soprano Nancy Pifer brought an almost physical if at times unsteady intensity to her assignments. Deborah Guscott contributed a contralto-like richness to Mulier Samaritana and Marcy Stonikas brought tonal security and affecting expression to Gretchen’s climactic lines. Elizabeth Norman was a radiant if initially tremulous Mater Gloriosa.

The combined choral forces sang with surprising cohesion and clarity, rising to the majestic challenges of Part Two with aplomb. Kudos to Friedman, the orchestra’s management and all involved for their can-do spirit in not only attempting to scale Mahler’s massive symphony but doing so successfully.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, soloists, and choirs make a mighty sound with Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand””

  1. Posted Apr 24, 2010 at 9:57 am by Erin McNeely

    Congratulations on such an impressive project!

  2. Posted Jun 19, 2010 at 3:48 pm by Maureen Baldwin

    This symphony has so many talented musicians – they and the music they play add to the rich cultural opportunities that are available in Oak Park/ River Forest.

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