Lawrence Toppman

Symphony musicians make us love Mahler as they do

Can one 70-minute orchestral work justifiably stand alone as a concert? Only if it contains an entire world of ideas, emotions and physical stimulations, if we go away feeling we’ve been served a complete musical meal. Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony qualifies, and Christopher Warren-Green and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra brought out all its flavors Friday at Belk Theater.

Mahler himself had gone through extraordinary experiences just before and during its composition: a near-fatal hemorrhage, introduction and marriage to younger Alma Schindler, formal appointment to the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera. He poured all his feelings into the first purely orchestral piece he had written in 13 years.

CSO musicians seem to tap into special reservoirs of skill and commitment when playing music that challenges them most, composers who require their fullest advocacy to audiences – Mahler and Shostakovich leap first to mind – or works they want concertgoers to love, not just admire or enjoy.

From the first slow notes of the trumpet fanfare by John Parker, Warren-Green had the confidence to build gradually, trusting us to stay with him. The warm, weighty opening came to full speed slowly, like a locomotive picking up steam as it climbed a long grade. The second movement burst forward like an undammed brook; the musicians played with such fervor they had to retune when it ended.

The players revealed the grotesque or melancholy elements of the third movement without underlining them too heavily, eventually showing us “mankind in the full brightness of day,” as Mahler put it. (Frank Portone and his French horn section stood out here.)

Harpist Andrea Mumm and the strings gracefully put across the adagietto – still famous to people of a certain age as Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral music in 1968 – with Warren-Green taking it at a tender yet flowing tempo.

The final movement, a concerto for orchestra in all but name, let everyone shine. By then, audience members could take time to concentrate on individual sections or artists: Suddenly the violas would saw away ferociously for half a page, or the low brass would release a roll of thunder that passed almost as soon as you swung to watch them.

Warren-Green loves Mahler, and the musicians seem to love him, too. (Maybe that’s because they so seldom play him.) They want us to feel the same way, and I’d guess anyone who left the hall unconverted Friday may never get the spirit.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

When: 8 p.m. today, Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

Tickets: $25.50-$89.50.

Details: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.

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