Members of the audience leaving Saturday evening’s Orchestra Iowa masterworks concert at the Paramount Theatre were overheard describing the performance as “awesome,” “memorable” and a “triumph.”
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 is the composer’s hymn to the natural world and his longest work at an average of one hour and 40 minutes. The audience appeared to enjoy every minute.
The first movement, originally called “Pan awakens, summer marches in,” is longer than most Mozart symphonies. Maestro Tim Hankewich prepared the audience for the 35-plus-minute length by informing them that it would be followed by an intermission before the remaining five movements.
The movement begins with bellowing power from the horn section, led by principal Charles Harris, accompanied by the thundering bass drum. After a reminder that not all of summer is pastoral, a solo trombone recalls a second theme beginning with two long notes.
Every musician seemed to do a little more than usual with their part. There was the clarion call of the trumpets, the threat from the cellos, a scream from the oboes, a powerful drive from the horns, the ethereal release from the flutes and a perfectly timed acceleration from the harp glissandi.
As the movement was drawing to a close, the percussion section erupted with the clash of three pairs of cymbals. Principal trombonist Casey Maday transformed a harsh bray into utter lyricism, allowing the strings and timpani to take the music down to an exquisite calm.
The second movement, originally titled “What the flowers in the meadow tell me,” has a deeply pastoral feel with sweeping melodies. The minuet provides a preview of the heavenly life to come and shows that Mahler, who was in his mid-30s, already was beginning to brood about his own mortality.
The composer borrowed from a song he had composed a decade earlier with the melody for the third movement, titled “What the animals of the forest tell me.” The scherzo features instruments imitating cuckoos and nightingales with an elegant horn solo near the conclusion.
Mahler turns dark and mysterious with the fourth movement, “What mankind tells me.” It included a setting of Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song” from “Also sprach Zarathustra” with a solo performed by mezzo soprano Katharine Goeldner.
Kudos are in order for principal trumpet Andrew Classen for his bravura off-stage solo performance in the movement. His entrances and exits were spot on.
Goeldner was joined by the Cedar Valley Women’s Chorus and the Children’s Discovery Chorus for the fifth movement, “What the angels tell me.” The morning chimes were easy to hear in a sparkling performance when the women and children sang “bimm bamm.”
While the fifth movement is the shortest, Mahler used it with great effect to set up his final movement, “What love tells me.” It is slow, calm and deeply moving, evoking a depth of emotion that belied that relative youth of the composer who would experience many personal tragedies before he died at age 50.
Concertmaster Dawn Gingerich led a spirited violin section, performing sublime solos that have become her trademark since she joined Orchestra Iowa. Gingerich displays a calm confidence, regardless of the challenge of the music.
Mahler’s composition provides cellists and string bass players numerous opportunities to showcase the full range of their instruments. Hankewich’s spirited direction added to the performance, seeming to draw out the musicians’ full energies.
The choice of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 for Orchestra Iowa’s final masterworks concert was personal for Hankewich. As he previously related to The Gazette’s Diana Nollen, the composition was the music that made him become a conductor.
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Watching Hankewich’s enthusiasm as he led the orchestra and choruses filling the Paramount stage, it was obvious that he has a special attachment to the symphony. The orchestra responded with a performance that prompted many members of the audience to leap to their feet at the conclusion with sustained applause and shouts of “Bravo!”
The Mahler Symphony No. 3 is not programmed by orchestras often because of the difficulty of the composition and the large number of musicians and singers required to do it justice. The fact that Orchestra Iowa was able to deliver a sterling performance is a tribute to the musicians, the singers and Hankewich.