Gustav Mahlers symphonies challenge a conductor with their complex inquiries into love, death and the universe. N.C. Symphony music director Grant Llewellyn continued his admirable survey of the complete cycle with a confident, authoritative performance of Symphony No. 3 in Meymandi Concert Hall on Friday night.
A number of the composers symphonies have become quite popular, but Mahlers third in the series is one of his least programmed, for several reasons. Its his longest symphony, clocking in at nearly 100 minutes, and for many, its his most difficult to wrap the mind around.
The 30-minute first movement is nothing less than a depiction of the natural worlds creation, from primordial rumblings and groans to fresh breezes and bird songs. Its overlapping, often cacophonous sections test the listener to find the through-line.
The succeeding five movements go from the romantically swirling second (the flowering world) and the jauntily prancing third (the animal world) to the final three that present mans realization of eternity and an acknowledgment of a higher power.
A conductor needs a strong sense of the symphonys whole concept to make it work. Llewellyn displayed deep understanding of the subtle shifts of dynamics and rhythms in each movement and wielded a sure hand over the entire proceedings.
The enhanced orchestra, notably the nine French horns and seven percussionists, was up to every challenge, impressing with its precision and cohesion. In the first movement, principal trombonist John Ilika played quietly somber phrases in three striking solos, while principal trumpeter Paul Randall deftly floated the third movements haunting flugelhorn solo from offstage.
Another reason for the works rarity in concert is the vocal element the fourth and fifth movements, including an alto soloist, a womens chorus and a boys choir. Here, Susan Platts used her clear, warm voice to fill the hall, joined by the heavenly sounds of the N.C. Master Chorales women and the angelic voices of the Raleigh Boychoir.
Kudos to the N.C. Symphony for providing the experience, something the audience obviously relished, judging by one of the fullest halls for any of the orchestras recent classical concerts.