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A Resurrection of Sorts

Cambridge University Orchestra Performs Mahler

By Jeremy Baskin

Cambridge University Musical Society Orchestra and Chorus

Stephen Cleobury, conductor

Carolyn Foulkes, soprano

Catherine Denley, contralto

Kresge Auditorium

Sept. 27, 8 p.m.

One should always be a bit wary of a concert whose advertisements focus so heavily on the dignitaries in the audience as opposed to the supposedly superlative product on stage. Surely, one hopes, there will be more to the concert than seeing President Vest with his eyes firmly fixed on the woodwinds or the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University staring intently at the organist.

There was a healthy crowd in attendance at Kresge Auditorium on Saturday night, but were we there to look or to listen? In any case, we were treated to the latest manifestation of the multifaceted exchange program between MIT and Cambridge University. Last year, MITSO traveled to Cambridge, England, to perform, among other pieces, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (Titan), and the favor was returned on Saturday with a concert featuring the Cambridge University Musical Society Chorus and Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection).

So much for cultural exchange. What if the American college orchestra had performed Gershwin and Copland in the original Cambridge last year and the British college orchestra had brought Britten and Holst to the new world? Instead, both orchestras beat their proverbial chests with the symphonies of Mahler, those quintessentially masculine creations.

The first musical impression of the evening was how dry the cellos sounded in the opening bars of the first movement, Allegro maestoso. Maybe it was the unusually large number of people who attended the concert (upwards of three quarters of the hall was filled), or simply the cavernous space that is Kresge Auditorium.

Or perhaps it was simply a matter of timidity on the part of the players, a timidity that was unfortunately emulated by the violins later on and the ever drifting horn section throughout the evening.

The piece contains five movements, the outer two of which are, well, Mahlerian in size, with the middle three being of a more modest size and scope. It is in the inner movements where the performance showed bursts of inspiration.

The second movement, a minuet and trio, Mahler-style, featured a sublime pizzicato section, which came as a surprise, given that the strings fell apart more than once in other parts of the evening when the bows were on the strings.

Except for a slightly impatient but amply talented principal, the clarinet section shone in the third movement, a scherzo, though one did get the sense that the orchestra was conducting the conductor at times. That, however, isn’t always a bad thing.

Like most Mahler symphonies, the Resurrection has choral and solo vocal parts, and the melting voice of contralto Catherine Denley, who sang the poem Urlicht in the fourth movement, couldn’t have come too soon. Both her and soprano Carolyn Foulkes, who joined in the final movement, captured the emotional element that had been lacking up to that point.

When they sang the duet near the end of the piece, I was reminded of why composers tend to give their sweetest melodies to the voice. You wouldn’t want a bad reed to get in the way of God’s words.

And speaking of divine emotion, how did the performance fare as a whole? The Resurrection symphony is a difficult one to pull off in a unified way. Composed over a six-year period, it starts out like a tone poem and ends like an oratorio, with marches and scherzos in the middle.

One has to summon not only all of ones humanly abilities but also the full gamut of emotions, mortal and otherwise. This performance may have started out flat, but it ended unified, with a strong chorus, made up of members from Cambridge University, MIT, Harvard, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, supporting the orchestra.

On Saturday night, Jesus wasn’t quite resurrected, but a performance, which by 8:25 p.m. I had written off for dead, came to life before it was all over.