ST. PETERSBURG — The Mahaffey Theater is generally never packed for the Florida Orchestra's Morning Masterworks concerts; Friday's performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D major was no exception. But those willing to take on the almost hour-long "Titan" symphony at 11 a.m. were well rewarded.
Mahler's First Symphony, originally billed as a symphonic poem, takes listeners on a journey through the experiences — not always positive — that are associated with love. The slow and slightly eerie introduction, with its drone of unison harmonics in the strings, got the audience's attention. As the first movement gained momentum, returning guest conductor Tito Muñoz showed his skill. Entrances were almost always attentive and clean, no small feat since he was conducting from memory.
Especially in the first movement, you can hear Mahler's love of nature. The most striking example is the repeated descending interval introduced by the winds, imitating a cuckoo's call. And the main theme played by the cellos comes from the second of Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer, "I Crossed the Meadow this Morn." If you know the text, flowers and birds proclaim how much the world delights them.
Mahler recycled more music in the peasant dance second movement, with a tune similar to the Wayfarer song in the woodwinds. The strings emphasized the glissandi (slides), which brought out the folk-like character of this Austrian dance. The trio of the second movement was particularly enjoyable; Muñoz provided some of his most expressive conducting, carefully phrasing each melody.
The third movement, often considered hard to conduct, was pulled off skillfully as well. Several times, Mahler interrupts the funeral march with music that sounds like it is being played by a Klezmer band. The soft cymbal clashes during these sections stand out, foreshadowing the opening of the stormy last movement.
Muñoz's conducting during the concert was somewhat reserved but quite technical. I rarely saw the wild abandon that you might expect from some conductors, and this served the orchestra well for the fourth movement. Muñoz did not prematurely give away the opening shriek — guaranteed to wake anybody who dozed off during the funeral march. The vehement character of the long final movement is often lightened by lyrical interjections, which were played gracefully by the orchestra. In the end, the storm blows away and gives in to the victorious sounds of the augmented brass section. The horns, increased to eight from the orchestra's normal four, performed admirably when they stood for their showcase moment at the end.
Just as Mahler's "Titan" Symphony was heavy, the other work on the program, John Adams' Chamber Symphony for Fifteen Instruments, was humorous. It's always tricky to describe music as witty, but the synthesizer part in the second movement justifies it. Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer was showcased in a portion of the final movement with a fantastic solo that was accompanied by only the drum set.