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The Erie Philharmonic Orchestra “In the Spotlight”

In his podium remarks, Erie Philharmonic music director Daniel Meyer said Mahler composed the way we think – not in orderly, sonata-allegro form, but with ideas popping into his head in their own time, and one after another. In Meyer’s hands, they came in a headlong rush. In an interview for my Erie Times-News preview of Saturday’s Erie Philharmonic concert, Meyer called the Mahler First, “one of the most miraculous first symphonies ever written. Only Brahms comes close.” But Brahms was a seasoned composer of 43 when his First Symphony was published. Mahler was only 28, and Meyer played his debut symphony as young man’s music – impetuous, dramatic and hot-blooded.

Meyer also told me that hearing the Mahler First is “like stepping into an enchanted forest.” If so, the eerie string harmonics that open the work made it a fog-bound forest at twilight, and more than a little creepy. The light came out with the arrival of the big, “Ging heut Morgen über feld” theme, and when it bloomed, it was as though nature had awakened (the rustic, slightly rough tone of the winds in the birdcalls was just right – did Meyer have Jascha Horenstein’s classic London recording of this work in his ears?). Some think of Mahler as haunted and death-obsessed. In Meyer’s hands he sang and danced.

But not in the second movement, with a landler that was a bit under-inflected. The trio, though, was lovingly shaped with sensitive phrasing from the augmented strings, which were outstanding all night.

The third movement, with its minor-key casting of the “Frère Jacques” tune and eruptions of klezmer music, is one of the strangest in the literature to that point, but it got off to a bad start with unsteady intonation and missed entrances, and never quite recovered. Mahler is a composer of grand gestures, all right, but often it’s the small moments that linger, and too many of them were clumsily handled.

All that was swept away in the cataclysm that begins the finale, appropriately eruptive in Meyer’s hands. Dynamics were nicely handled, and the sections, were, for the most part, well-blended (the brass, of course, were too loud, but you expect that in Mahler, right?) right up to the final bars. I wondered whether Meyer would have the horns stand at their big moment; they were stationed on the highest riser upstage, and I thought they might topple off the back. They didn’t, and the clarinets played bells-up as well (is that also in the score?)

The Mozart Serenade, K.388 that was the first half of the program was tidily handled, but the Mahler was the reason for the season. It was a walk in the forest that wasn’t enchanting from beginning to end (someone put a curse on the trumpets), but the first movement is something I won’t soon forget.

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