Musical Titans: Mahler & Barber

Date: 24 April 2004 at 8.00pm
: Orpheum Theatre

Reviewer: June Heywood




Conductor: Bramwell Tovey
Featured Performer: Judith Ingolfsson - Violin

Judith Ingolfsson

For an evening of raw emotion, Maestro Bramwell Tovey chose pieces made popular in two significant movies. Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings ran throughout the Vietnam war movie, 'Platoon'. Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5 also set a somber mood for 'Death in Venice'.

Certain pieces of music touch your heart and make your eyes well with tears. The simplicity and grave beauty drawn out of fine instruments by professional musicians is a moving experience. Barber's Adagio for Strings is such a piece.

Barber's lesser-known work, Violin Concerto, Op. 14, also has an element of war attached to it. This Concerto was commissioned in 1939 by a wealthy industrialist for his adopted son just before World War II broke out in Europe. The young violinist didn't care for the lyrical character of the first two movements declaring them too simplistic for his virtuoso technique. The composer assured the violinist that there would be a challenging bravura finale. The finale proved too challenging for the young man.

Not so for the young Icelandic violinist, Judith Ingolfsson; she made her violin express poetry, darkness and energy. As if in another world, she bowed like lightning in the finale passing on her extreme energy to the violin section whose forest of bows moved in perfect unison.



Energy, technique, style, and stamina were also evident throughout the five movements of Mahler's Fifth Symphony in C-sharp minor. Trauermarsch opened and closed with solo trumpeter, Larry Knopp who playied his instrument as a clarion of death.

In 1901, Mahler almost died. That summer he wrote Songs on the Death of Children, and the first two movements of his Fifth Symphony. As a result of his near death, the first part of his symphony is like a somber funeral, filled with despair. The second, movement is a lush and emotional rawness expressed by the strings, brass, woodwind, and percussion.

Mahler married before he wrote the third movement. It has a lighter, more lilting tone. The piccolo expresses playfulness and the soft plucking duet of the violins is effective. The percussion adds an element of surprise.

Maestro Tovey heightened the drama to the opening of the fourth movement by taking a long pause before lowering his baton to gently introduce the strings and the harp. The music for 'Death in Venice' evokes sunset over water. The double basses made rich, mellow music.

Mahler has grandiose moments. Maestro Tovey's interpretation of the music was masterful and exacting. The musicians played with precision and commitment.

Vancouverites are fortunate. It's a treat to have our own symphony orchestra of such high calibre able to present challenging pieces such as Mahler's Fifth Symphony and Barber's Adagio for Strings.

2004, June Heywood