“Compelling” is the most apt word for St Peter’s Chamber Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6. The symphony itself is one of the most revered in the classical canon, but in this case, the word applied to far more than the score. Many audience members appeared early to make sure they got a seat for a performance that would last for two hours without a break, and the atmosphere was electric even before the music started.
SPCO did not disappoint. From the first few notes of Sebastian Black’s Idyll-Cortège, written specifically as an opener for this performance of Mahler’s sixth, the quality of the orchestra manifested itself. A stormy miniature which flirts with tonality, the piece was well served by the strong string section, led dynamically from the front, and the attentiveness of the winds.
The first movement of the Mahler immediately captured the audience. Particularly notable was the rich string sound, which remained resonant and present even in the pianissimo sections — a rare achievement amongst student orchestras. There was also a sophisticated sense of pacing, with climaxes and ebbs throughout the long and complicated movement, which succeeded in making the music flow as an intelligible narrative.
The highlight of the piece, however, was the Adagio. The poignant intensity of the slower theme was well crafted, and the players remained on the edge of their seats, as committed to the more lyrical sections as they were to those classic Mahlerian moments that involve nearly one hundred players and an impossibly loud dynamic. This magnificent pacing of the Adagio was no doubt achieved because of the musical sensitivity and vision of conductor John Warner, who gracefully guided the ensemble through this luscious movement.
There was also some impressive solo playing that highlighted the overall high standard of this orchestra. The many — and difficult — French Horn solos were deftly executed by Pippa Hampton, as were the concertmaster solos (Ben Cartlidge).
What was abundantly clear, even from the balcony, however, was how well Warner knew and loved the score, and how firmly the orchestra trusted in his interpretation and authority in this performance. He did an admirable job with both interpretation, and with the sheer brute force necessary to accomplish the feat of performing Mahler with a student orchestra. Despite the overall solemnity of the music, it was this exuberance that was so refreshing. In today’s landscape of many tired performances from underpaid professional orchestras, the untrammelled, youthful hope of this concert was exhilarating. Any momentary intonation slips or occasional stretches of monochrome dynamics ceased to matter; the performance did matter, because it brought together an ensemble and an audience that were carried away by the music. It was compelling, and compelling is always better than perfect.