The final subscription concert of the 2018-19 season by the Mozarteum Orchestra under chief conductor Riccardo Minasi had a single work this morning: the Symphony #5 by Gustav Mahler. While they easily could have had something else on the program before an intermission, in a sense it was good for them to keep this focus. Minasi’s own background as a violinist who had specialized in early music and the baroque, and his recent conducting career in which he has preferred short(er) pieces must have made Mahler quite foreign to him. But in becoming chief conductor here, he has clearly intended to expand his repertory.
There is something to say about hearing a work like Mahler’s in a fresh interpretation, by someone not so familiar with the Fach but willing to learn. What we got was indeed a refreshing performance, with Minasi demonstratively coaxing competing lines from the orchestra. The symphony itself is a competition between dance and despair, and Minasi tweaked and tucked to pull out both the dissonance and the fact that with Mahler the two aspects really belong together. This began from the opening funeral march (parsed through a limping dance) and went right the way through to the final triumphant (if only hopefully-so) chorale.
The emphasis on various stray lines highlighted the complexities of the music – rather than blending it all together – and the orchestra in general responded with exquisite playing (a few stray notes and blotches notwithstanding – my second concert in a row with this orchestra where I am noticing more of these issues), particularly exceptional and evocative in the woodwinds and principal trumpet and horn.
What did not work so well was bringing the principal horn down to the front of the stage (even forward of where a soloist would stand during a concerto) during the third movement. Although that movement features the solo horn quite a bit (albeit this is Mahler, so really not much more than usual), it did not have enough solo lines to justify the strange positioning, and the poor hornist fidgeting during the long periods when he did not have lines, wondering what on earth he was supposed to do standing there at the lip of the stage in front of Minasi. But I’ll give Minasi points for his creativity and desire to tackle something new (for him) in a thoughtful manner. The orchestra was also quite enthusiastic, as was the audience which gave an extended applause.