TAMPA — Mahler's Symphony No. 6 is like a great, sprawling novel. There are so many things going on in it that when the music — or the book — is finished, you want to start all over again just to stay in that world.
The Florida Orchestra and music director Stefan Sanderling performed Mahler's 80-minute symphony — the only piece on the program — Friday at Morsani Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. As the final, crushing A-minor chord reverberated, the audience seemed stunned by the magnitude of what it had just heard.
And for good reason. The orchestra was overwhelming, with a large brass section (nine French horns) and percussion that had two timpanists, three triangles, four sets of cymbals, xylophone and much more. Most intriguing was the huge cube that principal percussionist John Shaw smacked twice with a giant mallet — the hammer-blows of fate in the finale.
It was a good night for soloists, especially principal horn Robert Rearden, whose rich, sturdy tone was at the heart of the symphony. Principal tuba William Mickelsen shone in the eerie solo that opens the finale. The strings sounded sumptuous in the allegro melody in the first movement that is called the "Alma" theme and was meant by Mahler to represent his wife.
Sanderling and the orchestra took a while to settle into the work. His initial tempo seemed too brisk, dynamic contrasts were lacking and the musical line threatened to disintegrate at one fragile point in the Andante. But the performance grew nicely and became totally engrossing in the mammoth finale.
Incidentally, Sanderling put himself on the side of the angels by playing the middle two movements in the order preferred by Mahler, with the tender Andante followed by the heavy, abrasive Scherzo. Many conductors have changed the order, with the Scherzo first, then the Andante. Mahler himself vacillated over the order of the movements when he conducted the symphony, but he ultimately chose what was played Friday.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.