Mahler had many thematic ideas for his Third Symphony when he was composing it over the summers of 1895 and 1896 in the Austrian countryside — ideas involving nature and heaven and love — but none of them matter. You don't need to know anything about what went into the writing of this mighty work except that it is 100 minutes of constant, amazing music.
There's nothing else quite like Mahler Three, and the Florida Orchestra rose to the occasion with one of its finest performances under music director Stefan Sanderling on Friday night. Disappointingly, Morsani Hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center was only about half full to experience this glorious work.
To be sure, Mahler is not easy listening, but the effort it takes to get inside his sound world is repaid many times over. For such a huge orchestra — nine French horns, for example — the playing was full of delicacy and finesse, credit to Sanderling's command of the work. The unconventional finale (marked "Slow. Calm. Deeply felt.'') can be a drag under the wrong conductor, but he struck a balance of intense restraint and gentleness that was mesmerizing through the long movement, and then the big finish was all the more magnificent.
The orchestra brass set the bar high in the opening movement with spooky muted trumpets and Dwight Decker's superb solo trombone. Robert Smith overcame a smudged note to shine in the third movement's lovely, treacherous post horn solo.
Susanne Mentzer was the mezzo-soprano who announced the solemn warning O Mensch! Gib Acht! (Oh, Man, take heed!), and she brought a subtle theatricality to the solo that was ideal. She joined with the Tampa Bay Children's Chorus and women of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay in the celestial choir of the fifth movement, the most purely joyous music of the night.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.