News Column

An orchestra on the move, DSO ends its season with Mahler

June 1, 2014

By Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press

June 01--Orchestras like to end their seasons with a bang, and the sprawling, stormy and swaggering symphonies of Gustav Mahler often fit the bill. But Friday's first of two season-closing performances of Mahler's 100-minute Third Symphony by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra felt more like the beginning of something rather than the end -- or, better, a snapshot of an orchestra in the midst of reinvention.

The presence of three potential new principal musicians on stage had something to do with this; the winners of recent oboe, clarinet and bass auditions are playing trial weeks before a final decision is made. Their appearance put an exclamation on the recent churn of personnel that is changing the face and sound of the DSO during music director Leonard Slatkin's tenure. A few were casualties of the strike four years ago, and at least two moved into higher echelon orchestras in Chicago and Los Angeles. But far more prevalent are simply natural life-cycle retirements, including seven players at the end of this season with a combined service of 262 years.

On a broader front, the DSO's post-strike transformation also finds the orchestra becoming more rooted in its community via its neighborhood, education and other initiatives while also pushing for more visibility beyond Michigan via its web broadcasts. With fund-raising and ticket sales trending in the right direction, a new musicians' contract ratified in January eight months before the current deal expires and Slatkin's programming hitting a rewarding balance of new music, staples and thematic ideas, the DSO ends the 2013-14 season leaving the impression that it's shifting from an institution on-the-mend to one that's on-the-make.

Friday's performance was a strong one, though it also made clear that one of Slatkin's challenges as he enters his 7th season in Detroit will be to quickly integrate so many new players into an ensemble that breathes as one. There were moments in the long first movement in particular in which some details and textures lacked definition and the flow of tempos left some ranks of the orchestra out of phase with others. But the performance sounded increasingly focused as it marched forward, the layers of brass, woodwind and string tone, timbre and expression -- now gentle, now turbulent, now somewhere in between -- blending in harmony.

The symphony is a paean to nature, but less a pastoral appreciation of beautiful landscapes than, as the conductor Bruno Walter once put it, a reflection of the "love and fear, rapture and horror" in her gaze. In addition to the large orchestra -- there were nine horns on stage -- the fine mezzo soprano Elizabeth Bishop, women of the UMS Choral Union and the MSU Children's Choir were on hand to sing the songs of eternity, redemption and sweet angels on texts by Nietzsche and folk sources.

Slatkin favors a cool-headed approach to Mahler, less interested in taffy-pull phrasing and wallowing in the mood swings than in a carefully plotted attack and sensible tempos that keep the music on a forward track. On the downside, you don't get awe and transcendence from him; but you do get proportioned feelings. His approach paid particular dividends in the middle movements in which folk-styled melodies, piquant bird calls, bounding rhythms and shimmering strings unfolded in graceful paragraphs. The finale built logically to a boldly declarative, brass-proud affirmation.

Too many individuals deserve praise to single them all out, but Bishop, principal trombonist Ken Thompkins, concertmaster Yoonshin Song and that battalion of horns all covered themselves in glory. The highlight of the entire performance may well have been principal trumpeter Hunter Eberly's offstage solo in the third movement that floated through the hall like secrets whispered from the great beyond. The solo spots by Eberly and Song, both of whom represent upgrades over their predecessors, were reminders that the DSO has been hitting home runs in many of its auditions.

Of those playing their trial weeks, oboist Jennifer Christen, currently principal oboe with the Indianapolis Symphony, made an especially strong impression. She has a lovely, dulcet tone, a nuanced attack and a songful way of phrasing that made her many solos bloom with expression, and she blended beautifully with her fellow winds. It was harder to get a read on the others (clarinetist Ralph Skiano and bassist Kevin Brown), though to have made it this far in the process, they obviously have strengths to offer. We'll learn soon how all of this will shake out. On to 2014-15.

Contact Mark Stryker: 313-222-6459 or


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Source: Detroit Free Press (MI)

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