Weekend review roundup 1: Peabody Symphony Orchestra

It probably would have been a good idea to set up an anti-depressant concession stand in the Peabody Institute lobby Saturday night.

Inside Friedberg Hall, an audience was treated to a Peabody Symphony Orchestra program packed with downers -- Tchaikovsky's wrenching "Pathetique"; the angst-driven Adagio from Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony; and "Malleus," a turbulent tone poem by Peabody doctoral student Douglas Buchanan referencing the horrific fate of those executed for witchcraft in Salem.


Too much of a brood thing? Perhaps. But I must say the concert proved involving from the get-go.

Hajime Teri Murai seemed even more fired up and expressive than usual. Aside from an occasional smudge of articulation or, primarily in the Tchaikovsky work, intonation, the orchestra turned in a very impressive effort. There was a palpable feeling of players fully connected to the music.


"Malleus," which won this year's Macht Orchestral Composition Competition at Peabody, got things started with a jolt. Buchanan has a knack for ...

summoning massive sonic blows, reminiscent in impact of the kind John Corigliano can unleash.

The hammering passages in the taut score are filled with terrific orchestral color and weight, not to mention feeling -- in a program note, Buchanan writes about two "(nine-times great) aunts" who were hung in 1692, victims of the disgusting witch hunt. A nephew, no matter how many generations removed, is not likely to take that sort of thing lightly.

The composer's eventful score is not all percussive outbursts; a contrasting passage that pits fragile piccolo phrases floating above ominously rumbling basses has an especially haunting quality. If you didn't know the background of the piece, the sense of a journey through fear, rage and mourning would likely still be suggested. This is very clear, personal music.

Murai drew an impassioned response from the orchestra, which maintained the level of intensity in the Mahler Adagio. The violas led the way with admirably cohesive and expressive playing of the opening material. The violins, too, impressed with their handling of the subsequent soaring motive, one of Mahler's most ardent, yet troubled, utterances.

Murai shaped that Adagio with a good deal of sensitivity and concern for subtle details, an approach that, after intermission, he applied as well to the opening Adagio of the "Pathetique." He did some wonderful things with the first appearance of the descending theme in that movement, giving stretching and bending just a little to give it more of an aching quality.

Murai's way of giving phrases breathing (or sighing) room in the outer movements helped underline the pathos in "Pathetique," where some conductors today seem determined to downplay it. The 5/4 movement flowed briskly, but warmly.

The march was taken at a wild clip that just kept getting wilder. You don't hear that every day. It was terrific. (When Marin Alsop led the BSO in a performance of the work last month, she put a slight gear shift into the march, slowing it down a bit before the big finish. I liked that approach, too.)


The Peabody ensemble really let loose in that march and managed to keep up with Murai, who was evidently pleased with their grit. When the audience didn't respond -- for a few seconds, I thought I was finally going to hear a performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth without instant clapping between the third and fourth movements -- the conductor started the applause himself.

I would not have minded more expansiveness in the finale, but that music emerged nonetheless with a good deal of gravitas, the finishing touch to an evening of deep, dark thoughts.