American guest conductor Robert Trevino conquered a packed National Concert Hall in Dublin with a rousing performance of Mahler's Symphony no. 2 "Resurrection" that raised the roof and brought down the house for the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra's season opener. Trevino, who is Music Director of the Basque National Orchestra and is the incoming Chief Conductor of the Malmo Symphony Orchestra, has been building up expertise and a reputation in the Mahler canon, having wowed audiences in London in April with a standout performance of the Fifth with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Robert Trevino © Lisa Hancock
Robert Trevino
© Lisa Hancock

If there's any way to characterise Trevino's approach to Mahler, it is that he is neither bashful nor shy. Trevino had the orchestra running on all cylinders and then some – the NSO has rarely sounded so rich, so controlled and played with such attention to detail. And Mahler's Second is a piece that demands meticulous care if it is not to get blowsy and ragged at the edges. When Mahler writes pppp, just after everyone is playing as loudly as possible, the composer means it. Bass lines have to fade into nothingness, so that the woodwinds can shine or the brass can have a field day. It is a symphony of little set pieces that suddenly becomes epic.

Nowhere is that more so than in the wonderful scherzo, which Mahler lifted wholesale from Des Knaben Wunderhorn's mad little Lied about St Anthony preaching to the fishes, adapted for his third movement. It is larded with wonderful bits that are effectively instrumental solos in the midst of a full orchestra, starting with a timpani introduction, with the spotlight later shining on piccolos and harps. Here, and in other movements, Trevino arranged for all such solos to be highlighted even in dense passages, making this huge piece warmer and more human than it sometimes comes across.

That riotous carnival of sound comes to a sudden halt with the fourth movement, "Urlicht" (Primeval Light), another borrowing from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, but this time one that finds Mahler at his most melancholy: "Mankind lies in greatest need/Mankind lies in greatest pain".

English mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, filling in for an indisposed Patricia Bardon, captured the mood precisely for one of Mahler's most poignant passages, one that ends, however, on a note of hope rather than despair, which she pulled off perfectly.

The fifth movement is the one to blow the roof off as Mahler throws everything into the mix, including off-stage brass, concert organ and as big a choir as the NCH's choir balcony could handle. Irish soprano Orla Boylan joined forces with Johnston in this movement's solo passages, which were inspired by Mahler's attendance in 1894 at the funeral of his early champion, the conductor Hans von Bülow, where he heard a boys' choir singing a setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's ode Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection). The RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, under guest chorus master Desmond Earley, was in great form, and hearing the two soloists' voices soaring above those of the choir got you exactly where Mahler wanted you to be. A glorious night to start the new season. 

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