At the February 2 Quad City Symphony Orchestra concert, the crowd was noticeably perplexed by the divergent Barber Violin Concerto and seemingly in pain sitting through Mahler’s lengthy but cheery Fourth Symphony. The concert was a disappointment not because of the performances, but because of the works themselves: Conductor and Musical Director Donald Schleicher chose lesser-known Barber and Mahler pieces that fail to complement each other and are in many respects atypical of the composers’ bodies of music.

With a tragic childhood, Mahler was understandably obsessed with death and afterlife redemption, and his music reflected that – heavy and dark. But the Fourth Symphony doesn’t fit that pattern, and even though it’s one of his shorter works, it still clocks in at almost an hour. Schleicher would have better served by picking one of Mahler’s other symphonies, and the First, Fifth, or Sixth would have been a better introduction to Mahler’s music than the Fourth.

Despite this contextual problem, many of the performances were admirable. In the second movement, Alan Ohmes – who seldom fails to impress – played well as “Death’s Fiddler.” And, aside from some uneven playing by the horns and trumpets, the performance of the third movement – considered by Mahler to be one of his greatest achievements – was lush.

Unfortunately, the performance of the fourth movement was a bad way to end the symphony. The movement, the song “Das Himmllische (The Heavenly Life),” is a nice way for the symphony to culminate, but soprano Emily Tuckenbrod’s diminutive voice was lost and failed to convey a “heavenly life.”

The first half of the concert featured Robert Chen, concertmaster for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performing Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. The concerto is a confusing mix of two lyrical movements followed by an edgy and demanding third. The performance compounded the confusing nature of the work.

Chen, whose technical skills are well-documented, gave an elongated interpretation, turning the first-movement allegro into an andante. Hanging on to the melodies, extending them to the point of exhaustion, deprived the music of its soul. Even so, his relationship with the clarinets was excellent; they matched almost perfectly, and their respective parts never overwhelmed the others.

Throughout the performance, Chen’s technical ability was remarkable; even in the short but demanding third movement, with its frenetic triplets, he performed commendably.

Yet his playing seemed superficial. He never quite captured the edge found in most of Barber’s works, and especially in the second movement, the performance was hollow.

Schleicher’s offbeat programming approach for the February concert was in many ways admirable, but the choices didn’t work. One patron noted that she understood the musical director’s desire to expand the musical horizons of the symphony’s patrons, but she questioned the selections.

Next month’s concert offers another experiment in programming: a trombone soloist and works by three composers the audience will know even less about than Mahler and Barber. In less than a month, we will get a chance to see if Schleicher and the QCSO can recover.

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