This Virginia Symphony Orchestra concert, conducted by its music director JoAnn Falletta, consisted of just two works – Glazunov's Violin Concerto and Mahler's Fifth Symphony. Although composed within two years of each another, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

JoAnn Falletta and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra © David A Beloff
JoAnn Falletta and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra
© David A Beloff

The concerto is one of those works that isn't "quite" in the top rank of the most popular violin concertante pieces, but still residing in the next tier along with the Goldmark, Dvorak, Saint-Saëns Third and a few others. The Glazunov seems to be enjoying renewed popularity, with a number of top international concert violinists keeping it in their active repertoire. Today's soloist was a rising star, 21-year-old Brendon Elliott, a native of the Tidewater Virginia area and a recent graduate of Curtis Institute who has been performing since his teens. Considering his age, Elliott's playing is to be highly commended. He approached the concerto with the emotional maturity one might normally associate with someone much older. I was particularly taken with the sweet tone that Elliott coaxed from his instrument. It may not be the biggest sound, but the melodic lines were clear and limpid and phrasing very musical. The cadenza which transitions between the Andante and final Allegro movement was nicely navigated, and the finale sizzled and sparkled with energy. It was a thoroughly engaging performance, and it proves again how good the Glazunov concerto is.

When Mahler premiered his Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor in 1904, he considered the performance a disappointment, reportedly saying, "Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the performance fifty years after my death." Mahler's observation was on target, because the 1960s saw the rise in popularity of Mahler's symphonies to become mainstream concert repertoire – not least the Fifth. Even though it is scored for orchestra alone, a departure from his prior three symphonic essays which included voices, it's still a massive affair. It is also ostensibly non-programmatic, although I'm sure many people have attempted to find programmatic meaning in the symphony, which progresses in an "uplifting" fashion as it moves through its three major parts and five movements within.

To my ears, every movement in this symphony is strong. Mahler makes each note count – perhaps not something one can claim about all of the symphonies he composed. In today's VSO performance, conductor Falletta took the opening funeral march movement very much as the score dictates. The trumpet solo at the opening of the movement was extraordinary, and it set the atmospherics for what was to come. At the end of the movement, one could clearly picture the coffin being lowered into the ground, punctuated by the abrupt ending pizzicato note.

The second movement, with its Sturm und Drang aspects, provided contrast, but as performed here one could plainly hear the thematic connections to the earlier movement. Thanks to Falletta's conception, it seemed less like a separate movement and more like a continuation of the first, along with some really ferocious climaxes which were masterfully done by the VSO musicians.

Part II of the symphony is taken up by a single movement; at nearly 20 minutes in duration it may well be the longest scherzo ever penned by Mahler. Falletta and the VSO players turned this movement into its own special adventure, with wonderful interplay between the solo wind instruments, all while emphasizing the ländler thematic elements.

Part III begins with the famous Adagietto, by far the shortest movement in the symphony but one of fervent emotion. Falletta shaped this movement beautifully, the string ensemble gravitating from meditative to yearning and even to ethereal. One hardly realized that the movement is scored for strings and harp alone, so emotionally gripping was the interpretation. The onset of the final Rondo was announced by horn and clarinet calls that set the jovial mood for the movement. There were good spirits all around, and Mahler's contrapuntal compositional genius was wonderfully conveyed by the players. Here again, the Virginia strings merit special commendation, including intonation that was flawless. Fair dues also to a really top-drawer performance by the timpanist, too, not only in the final movement but throughout the entire symphony. It was incisive playing that also blended beautifully with the other instruments.

All in all, the VSO gave us what every stellar Mahler performance should deliver: attention to all the little details without losing sight of the larger "arc" of the composition. There's also the challenge of presenting Mahler's massive score with all due respect to the musical contrasts instead of merely emphasizing one dynamic level (loud). While recordings of Mahler symphonies are usually successful in this regard, it is more challenging to bring off in a live performance. Falletta and the VSO more than met the challenge, and the result was an absolute triumph.