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April 8, 2020

Santa Cruz Symphony captivates with Mahler’s Fifth

Review by Fleur C. Williams

Music is a powerful means for transformation – a fact beautifully conveyed in the Santa Cruz Symphony’s (SCS) most recent production, “Catharsis,” which was presented at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium and the Henry J. Mello Center for the Performing Arts in Watsonville. Under the baton of the ever-dynamic Maestro Daniel Stewart, SCS musicians were full of force and energy as they revealed the vast emotional landscape of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

Mahler’s Fifth is considered to be a handful for any conductor and orchestra. The music’s dramatic nature has plenty of technical difficulties as it leads us on a thematic journey from inner turmoil to exaltation. As a reflection of all the dark and light facets of life, the score’s five movements radically and unpredictably shift between slow and fast tempos. Stewart and the musicians were completely in sync as they navigated these complex changes and successfully maintained the music’s underlying rhythmic pulse.

From the first solo (an evocative trumpet fanfare by Matthew Ebisuzaki), we became aware of how individual virtuosity plays a prominent role in balancing this massive symphony. The musicians showed incredible focus and precision with the rhythmic variations and intense tones of the score and were responsive to Stewart as he conducted the music’s somber, stormy, and joyful elements. As a whole, the orchestra brought great technical control and emotional insight into the tempo fluctuation and wild mood swings represented in Mahler’s work.

While each of the five movements kept us captivated, the performance of the famous Adagietto was especially rich. This slow and enchanting movement is considered one of Mahler’s “greatest hits.” It is a passionate declaration of love for his wife Alma, although it has also been affiliated with loss. SCS string and harp musicians delivered a smooth and lyrical performance that brought us into a reflective, dreamlike state. Stewart generously extended the melodies, drawing out the Adagietto’s soulful quality with the orchestra and proving that music alone can express emotional depths and nuances without the addition of words. 

As it ranges from mourning to frenzy to elation, Mahler’s Fifth reflects the tragic, comedic, and triumphant aspects of the composer’s personal life and brings attention to our own contrary life experiences. After the Adagietto, there was an audible shuffle in the audience as if the collective stirred from a contemplative trance and remembered to breathe again. 

As we move forward in 2020, the memory of this brilliant performance will remain evergreen; a reminder that music revives us and offers cathartic relief, especially during challenging times of chaos and uncertainty.

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