For many conductors, Gustav Mahler’s symphonies are Everest-like challenges. Their extreme lengths and wide-ranging moods make interpreting any one of them a battle.
Taking on all nine is a goal few conductors attempt, but from his first season as N.C. Symphony’s music director, Grant Llewellyn, began working his way through them. Friday, for the last Raleigh classical concert of his 12th season, Llewellyn led an absorbing, ultimately rousing interpretation of Symphony No. 7, demonstrating his considerable skills and enhancing the orchestra’s sterling reputation.
Symphony No. 7 was composed during 1904-05, some of Mahler’s happiest years because of rising success and contented family life. But by the 1908 premiere, his life had changed drastically, including the death of a daughter and a diagnosis of incurable heart disease. It’s not known whether these setbacks influenced his significant reworking of the orchestration, but it’s easy to hear a progression from doubt and torment to introspection and, finally, acceptance.
The 80-minute symphony, the only work on the program, was played without intermission, challenging Llewellyn to keep listeners engaged. The audience’s rapt attention throughout proved he succeeded.
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The 25-minute first movement is the most demanding. Its sudden swings, from funereal to exuberant and from sober to delirious, are wildly schizophrenic. Llewellyn’s control here was more metronomic than connective, but once past this daunting trial, he made the other four movements persuasively coherent.
The second movement begins with chirping and burbles, like insects and animals at dusk, alternating with a quietly romantic melody repeatedly disrupted by a frenzied theme. The third movement’s nightmarish dances of drunken creatures is calmed by the forth movement’s contemplative melody sprinkled with gentle mandolin and guitar chords. The fifth movement’s upbeat atmosphere builds to a glorious, big-as-all-outdoors finale, for which Llewellyn played the masterful architect. During the prolonged ovation, he acknowledged numerous soloists (too many to name here), again proving the caliber of the orchestra’s players.
This exhilarating performance marked the retirements of timpanist John Feddersen and violinist Paul Gorski, each with over 40 years of service. Their formidable talents will be missed.
If you go
What: Mahler Symphony No. 7, presented by N.C. Symphony
Where: Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. May 14
Info: 919-733-2750 or ncsymphony.org