Music review: Clerici Conducts Mahler, Concert Hall, QPAC

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was given expert treatment with the assistance of a supercharged orchestra.

In something of a rite of passage, incoming orchestral chief conductors are often tempted to start a cycle of Mahler symphonies. In this his first year as Chief Conductor of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO), however, Italian-born Umberto Clerici has sensibly decided to continue the Mahler cycle his predecessor Alondra de la Parra started back in 2016. He has therefore restarted the cycle with Mahler’s Symphony No.6 in A minor, known as the Tragic, and generally considered to be his most melancholic work. It was a bold decision. 

Before the Mahler, however, QSO presented a world premiere from emerging Australian composer, Justin Williams, who has previously written pieces for solo piano, string quartet, and string quartet and voice. His Symphony No.1 started life as a series of miniatures that morphed into three short movements, each of which in various ways depicts the awareness of time. The dramatic theme of the work was interspersed with pauses, a nod to the passing of time, while offering short orchestral solos from violin and woodwind in particular.      

Williams’ composition was harmonically interesting and in style there was much to compare it to Mahler’s expressionism. The back-and-forth struggle between dramatic tension and lyrical tenderness made it a suitable work to balance the Mahler, while its contemporary resonance offered an almost filmic quality. Each of the movements seemed to be scored similarly, perhaps lacking orchestral variety, though the composition was engaging. The orchestra played with great attention to detail while Clerici conducted with a firm hand and a strong beat.  

Mahler’s 6th Symphony is often regarded as his finest symphony, orchestrally traversing a wide range of emotions from dramatic dark sonority to melodic, lyrical sweetness, seemingly laying bare the composer’s soul. There is a sense of underlying heaviness, even gloom – his fortunes being predicted by fate. Yet there are also moments of joy and sufficient levity to leave the listener with some lingering hope. It is the least played of his symphonies, in part due to its orchestral scale demanding huge resources. The normal size of the QSO swelled by 60% to 114 players, while the Concert Hall stage was almost at capacity.   

The Allegro energico, ma non troppo, known as The Mysterious Forest March, is a terrific first movement and Clerici was in complete control from the outset. Powerful drum rolls commenced over a grumbling undercurrent from the celli and basses. This forceful orchestral sound filled the hall, while an exuberant Clerici encouraged the higher strings and brass to fresh heights followed by frenzied playing from the woodwind.  

Such a thrilling opening was soon followed by a complete change of pace with the love song Mahler dedicated to his wife, the Alma theme. This melody from the yearning, lush higher strings with ravishing repetitions by the woodwind was joyous. Given the massive orchestra, perhaps the sound was not as pianissimo as one may have liked, but it was beautifully played nevertheless. Cowbells and lighter folk music followed from percussion and woodwind, before returning to the dramatic opening theme, ending on a flourish of colourful instrumentation.        

Clerici took the traditional path of playing the Scherzo (The Wild Dance) next, followed by the slower and gentler Andante movement, A Love Letter. Despite much debate about Mahler’s intention here, this order seems at least the most practical – the slower movement providing a contrast to the massive Finale, allowing that change in mood to be even more dynamic.  

The Scherzo (Wuchtig) continued the previous marching theme with some delicious dance-like rhythms from the strings, woodwind and impressive horns. In addition, the brass, which included first-class trumpets, alongside greatly enhanced percussion and timpani sections, made a major contribution. 

The Andante Moderato gave us a delightfully slow and wistful movement, romantic and poignant. The harps, strings and woodwind excelled with ethereal solos from all the principal players. The introduction of the cow bells added to an idyllic country scene, offering some hope in the midst of Mahler’s bleak worldview.   

At over 30 minutes in length, the Finale: Sostenuto – Allegro moderato, Allegro energico, called The Epic Battle, can feel as if Mahler was unsure how to finish this work. It is an extraordinary piece of composition, intense and colourful, with a sound palette that covers all instrumentation and is as ferocious as it is exciting. Here the tuba very much comes into its own.

Clerici pulled out all the stops, though the orchestra needed little encouragement and their level of concentration was exemplary. It was a breathless whirlwind of a performance, with the two huge hammer blows, representing the hero’s grief, eerily disturbing. The highly emotive, dramatic conclusion with its huge cacophony of sound, followed by a solitary drum beat, was mesmerising and exceptionally well-played. Breath-held, one wanted that note to linger as long as possible before the mood was broken.      

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This was an eagerly anticipated and special event for the QSO, which also launched its 2024 season as a postscript to the concert. Clerici has been on board since January, but is already proving to be an exciting artistic leader for the QSO. The audience has warmed to his candid and authentic style, his technical capabilities as a conductor, and to the effervescent joy and enthusiasm that he brings to the podium. He certainly showed a strong affinity with the ever enigmatic Mahler in this concert, giving a powerful, intelligent and well thought-through reading of this complex work.  

Clerici conducts Mahler: A Musical Odyssey 
Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Umberto Clerici

Justin Williams Symphony No. 1 (World Premiere) 
Mahler Symphony No. 6 in A minor (Tragic) 
Clerici Conducts Mahler was performed 22-23 September 2023.

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She is a freelance arts writer and has been writing reviews and articles for over 20 years, regularly reviewing classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals. Most recently she was Arts Hub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer.