United States Mahler: USC Thornton Symphony / Yoav Talmi (conductor), Bovard Auditorium, Los Angeles, 9.3.2018. (LV)
Mahler – Symphony No.5
It’s hard to encounter Mahler’s Fifth Symphony live without experiencing something unforgettable, and often something unexpected. Its five movements, so dissimilar in their outward aspects and so profoundly united at their core, still represent an immense challenge to even the top professional orchestras — not only in playing the notes but making them sound like an actual symphony with a coherent narrative flow.
Fortunately, Mahler rewards the kind of effort the 87 members of the USC Thornton Symphony put forth — including seven French horns and five percussionists plus one heroic music librarian in training — at this concert at Bovard Auditorium. In the shadow of the iconic statue of university mascot Tommy Trojan (dressed like Hector but modeled after football players of a century ago), guest conductor Yoav Talmi and the orchestra’s musical warriors confronted Mahler in the intimate hall (seating 1,235) where every bar was an audiophile event, creating an arc of controlled emotion and power from beginning to end.
Three years ago in Budapest, I covered the Budapest Festival Orchestra — Hungary’s best — during their recording of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony for Channel Classics. Even though they had played it numerous times, they began as if they had never performed it before. Rigorous, efficient rehearsals culminated in a public dress rehearsal at the Bela Bartók National Concert Hall on the Danube.
The first rehearsal took place on the outskirts of the city, where more than 100 musicians, instrument cases, and music stands were crammed into the band room of a former high school building with a very low roof. (After the rehearsal was over I was sure I had been in a consensual relationship with Mahler.) And that is the way it was for this concert: an involving journey through a fantastic musical universe.
In no way, shape, or form are any of Mahler’s symphonies easy to perform, and the Fifth brings its own challenges. The big French horn and trumpet solos are spotlighted cruelly — what we’re accustomed to hearing on recordings, faultlessly played by the principals of the world’s greatest orchestras, often comes after repeated takes. But the USC orchestra’s Matt Reynolds and Seth Johnson produced similar results for the Trojans: the glory and the spirit of the music came through so heroically that they received a wave-like outburst of cheers from the audience at the end. There were imposing subterranean sounds from tubist Eitan Spiegel and a trio of terrific trombonists, and Talmi couldn’t keep his clarinetists from occasionally standing up and pointing their horns towards the audience like a 1940s big band.
The only thing that could have improved the excellent strings — led by concertmaster Jiwon Sun and principal cellist Annie Jacobs-Perkins, both charismatic virtuosos destined for fame — would have been to have more of them (only 10 cellos and 7 double basses). But that would have asked a lot of an already immense orchestra, crowded on the Bovard’s intimate stage.
What made this all possible, of course, was a conductor who could relate to all the various stakeholders: the musicians, the audience, and most of all Mahler. And Talmi obliged, leading the troops with an apparent lack of ego, coupled with a focus on maintaining the flow, while occasionally punctuating key moments with eloquent physical gestures. He achieved what the best conductors do: after only a few short rehearsals, he convinced the 87 musicians and the librarian to take pride in what they were doing onstage. They began owning the performance themselves.
With his lean technique, which blends in as if he were one of the players, Talmi is a conductor who makes it possible to follow the music without being familiar with the score. He was so clear about signs and transition points, that even when the orchestra struggled through some of the most massive traffic jams Mahler ever created, they emerged with fresh energy, movement, and enthusiasm.
Imagine Tommy Trojan bursting through the line to score the winning touchdown.