I may be a graduate of George Mason University and only live about a dozen miles from the university, but now that I have the diploma I rarely find a reason to visit my alma mater. Large performances can often be found at its Patriot Center, but major sporting events and rock concerts rarely interest me. George Mason University also has a Center for the Performing Arts, which I have frequented a few times over the years. Usually though when I feel the fine arts calling me, I head into Washington, D.C. It is hard to compete with its rich number of arts venues there, and my wife and I have repeatedly sampled most of them.
When a friend, who sings locally in the Reston Chorale, told me she was singing in a performance with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra and the Fairfax Chorale Society at GMU, I decided to get tickets to her event. There are lots of things I have been meaning to do in the quarter century I have lived in Northern Virginia, and one of them was to hear the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. Usually, I ponied up for tickets to hear the National Symphony Orchestra instead. The NSO of course is a first rate orchestra, a true national orchestra and has a terrific venue in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. I have lost track of the performances I have seen just inside the Concert Hall, but one of the more memorable ones was a fully orchestrated version of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand”, or close to it. There were so many soloists they were taking over the box seats.
Last night (and tonight in Manassas, Virginia) our local FSO performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, perhaps better known as his Resurrection Symphony. Like Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, it is ambitious in scope requiring not only a large choir but also an exceptionally large orchestra, which is perhaps why it is not played more regularly. It seemed a daunting challenge for the FSO. The FSO is a regional orchestra, and the “Fairfax” in FSO comes from Fairfax County where I live. How good could it possibly be, with the NSO in Washington and the BSO performing regionally at Strathmore Hall in Bethesda, Maryland? I assumed the FSO was probably better than average for a community orchestra, since it has been around since 1957, but I kept my expectations very modest. The performance venue at Mason’s Center for the Performing Arts was certainly swank and it has a Kennedy Center feel to it. While a community orchestra, this event came close to filling up the auditorium. Only a few hundred seats were unsold, mostly where we were up in the nosebleed section. We paid about fifty dollars each for our tickets. No point in paying for orchestra seating, I figured, for a second-class orchestra.
Okay, I was wrong. The FSO blew away my preconceptions, just as they wholly filled up the stage and the choir filled up the back of the stage. Regional orchestra? Maybe. Excellent orchestra? Absolutely yes! Under the direction of music director Christopher Zimmerman, the FSO rendered a spirited and very much in your face rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, which is just the way Mahler would have wanted it performed. On the 100th anniversary year of Gustav Mahler’s death, I had the feeling he was observing from on high and nodding in approval, probably with tears flowing from his eyes. This is a work that is truly immortal. The FSO, ably assisted in the latter movements by the Fairfax Chorale Society and the Reston Chorale, as well as soprano Jeanine Thames and mezzo soprano Janine Hawley, delivered what can only be described as terrific Mahler, every bit as good a performance as the glorious 8th symphony I saw more than a dozen years ago.
Mahler’s music is simply intense. It is rarely subtle, but it is complex, full of multiple themes all of which tend to grab you by the heart and hold you in its emotional grip, transfixed and transfigured for the duration. For me, it took less than thirty seconds. The first movement, Allegro Maestoso, starts off briskly and refuses to allow you to have even a moment to catch your breath. It is almost a symphony in itself, and ends with what feels like a statement of the feelings and anxieties of mortality and the search for meaning. But of course it is just the first statement on a theme that moves through five movements, ending with a violent outburst in the last movement. The only thing that is understated is the choruses, perhaps done to evoke an otherworldly feeling. Meanwhile during the performance, to accommodate the many, many musicians, orchestra members kept entering and leaving the stage. Sometimes they performed offstage, such as when a horn section required a muffled sound.
When more than ninety minutes later the symphony finally came to its glorious end, I was one of the thousands of listeners reeling and sort of stunned. It took me a while to arise from my seat and applaud; I had been wholly lost in a virtual musical world. We gave the orchestra and chorales four rounds of ovation.
Clearly there is no reason for me to go into Washington D.C. to get my classical music fix anymore. Classical music aficionados might choose to visit our region not just to hear the NSO, but also to venture out to Northern Virginia to hear the FSO, who is likely to get me as a new season subscriber. If you like classical music, and particularly if you live in Northern Virginia, you simply have to hear what you have been missing.