ASO – Mahler’s 7th Symphony

By Ben Nielsen

Five years on, and the Mahler symphony cycle is nearing its conclusion. Music Director and Chief Conductor Arvo Volmer returns to the helm, conducting the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra as it performs Symphony Number 7 (Song of the Night).

Mahler composed both the recently performed Das Lied von der Erde and Symphony Number 7 at the darkest point in his life. The compositional revisions made prior to the premieres of each work reflect Mahler’s explicit emotions at the time. The loss of his daughter to scarlet fever and his own diagnosis of an incurable heart condition can be attributed to the distinct absence of a sense of optimism and cheerfulness.

The symphony is recognised as the stylistic move from Nineteenth Century Austro-German tradition towards the modernism of the twentieth century. Delicate romanticism juxtaposed against grandiose passages depict the transition from night to day and an adventure of dreams, nightmares and serenades.

The ASO provided a superb execution of what is undoubtedly a truly demanding work. The orchestra’s ability was well exhibited; Mahler’s technically awkward, avant-garde themes and use of musical extremities tested each instrumentalist. Ian Denbigh’s opening tenor horn solo was hauntingly beautiful, exposed and with simply no room for error. Many individuals and sections had similarly soloistic passages but stepped up and performed spectacularly. Concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto’s passages shimmered from within the orchestra, and special mention should be made of the entire brass section who maintained stamina and a brilliant presence throughout.

Arvo Volmer’s commanding and ubiquitous influence of the orchestra was difficult to ignore. While every flourish and gesture provided direction to the orchestra, they were also the perfect visual accompaniment to the compositional virtuosity of Mahler’s work. To observe only Volmer would be an entertaining performance in itself.

Disappointingly, a smattering of applause was heard between the first and second movements (Langsam – Allegro con fuoco and Nachtmusik: Allegro moderato). While the intense finale of the movement did appropriate applause, it superseded the residual resonance and tumultuous ambience of the concluding note.

While the work was the subject of much criticism when it first premiered in 1908, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s performance was received by rapturous applause. To paraphrase Arvo Volmer, the Mahler symphony cycle has brought out the best in the orchestra, enabled an assortment of new musical possibilities, and delivered an increasing level of musical excellence.

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