ST. PETERSBURG — The Florida Orchestra sounded inspired to be back with music director Stefan Sanderling in a challenging task Saturday night at Mahaffey Theater. Sanderling led his first program of the season with nothing but Mahler: five movements, 80 minutes of music, no intermission.
Symphony No. 7 is sometimes called Mahler's problem child, mainly because of the difficulty of bringing off the large-scale first and last movements, but in many ways, these were the strongest elements of the performance. Conductor and orchestra got off to a great start with a virtually flawless reading of the opening movement, highlighted by a briskly paced melody in the violins and intricate brass and wind figures that led into the harp's announcement of the "moonlight" section about halfway through.
The only quibble I had was that the strings at the very beginning of the movement — meant to suggest the sound of a boat's oars while being rowed across a lake — weren't soft enough, though that may have been a consequence of the dry acoustic in Mahaffey. The middle three movements are some of Mahler's finest creations, and the second movement was especially absorbing, with French horns Robert Rearden and Carolyn Wahl shining in their recurring duet. The ghostly Scherzo is the symphony's shortest movement, but Sanderling allowed the tempo to slacken. For the fourth movement serenade, guitar and mandolin (Nate Najar and Pete Hennings) entered to play from the middle of the orchestra, but the instruments were somewhat hard to hear from my seat in the balcony. Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer contributed excellent solo work.
The evening wound up on a glorious high, as Sanderling reconciled the wild contrasts of the finale — including an outrageous quote from Offenbach's Can-Can — in thrilling fashion.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.