Austin Symphony With Ilya Gringolts

Local Arts Reviews

Austin Symphony With Ilya Gringolts

Bass Concert Hall, April 16

When Sung Kwak conducted Mahler's Fifth Symphony in 1985, it was evidence of the Austin Symphony Orchestra's potential. You heard the orchestra pulling itself up a notch. When they played it again last weekend under Peter Bay, you heard a much more mature and confident orchestra pulling itself up yet another.

Kwak briefly made Mahler part of the ASO's diet and wanted to expand to Bruckner, but rumored discontent from at least one ASO donor caused a dry spell until Bay picked Mahler back up early in his tenure. Nevertheless, Mahler's Fifth showed up regularly in Austin, through touring engagements by Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony and Daniele Gatti and the Royal Philharmonic. At Bass Concert Hall, Mahler's Fifth may have been heard more than Beethoven's.

Gatti's approach played off his players' adrenaline, but it was so overly dramatic that you became skeptical. That overdramatization is one of the work's traps, and Bay avoided most of them. It would be satisfying to let the players nail the audience in the first brassy measures. Bay opted for the slow buildup, saving the big artillery for the movement's climax, where he could justifiably claim victory. Diving into the Scherzo's powerful currents takes courage and an acceptance that things might get scuffed up. Bay showed his great sense for musical triage: knowing which melodies to bat away, which to leave to the orchestra to nurture into full bloom, and which to obsess over.

Mahler's Fifth is open to different approaches, and the tempo of the Adagietto has seen the extremes. It slowed down over the course of the 20th century, and that exaggerated slowness was set in our ears with the 1971 film Death in Venice. Recently, tempos have picked back up, and I prefer them, because any respectable adagio offers a balm after the mayhem of the Scherzo. Bay took a slowish pace, and the lovely, almost static first few measures made a promise that they couldn't fully keep.

Parts of the symphony sounded roughed in, especially the opening of the second movement. Like Beethoven's Ninth, Bach's unaccompanied violin sonatas, and a good basketball game, Mahler's Fifth needs signs of struggle. Witnessing the limits of talented people in top form being tested holds your attention. When they succeed, that's catharsis. The final movement was an unalloyed triumph, and the audience responded proportionately, removing any residual doubt that Mahler is welcome.

In Mendelssohn's E-Minor Violin Concerto, guest soloist Ilya Gringolts showed impeccable finesse and shimmeringly lyrical phrasing, although much of that subtlety was lost in the hall. Bay held the orchestra back, but Gringolts failed to project in even a middling forte. Gratefully the best licks come in the cadenzas, where his limber phrasing spun out that magical dewdrops-on-gossamer-in-morning-light sort of virtuosity that Mendelssohn demands.

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Sung Kwak, Mahler's Fifth Symphony, Austin Symphony Orchestra, Peter Bay, Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony, Daniele Gatti, Royal Philharmonic, Bass Concert Hall, Mendelssohn's E-Minor Violin Concerto, Ilya Gringolts

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