FM Symphony brings Mahler's dark Symphony 5 into the light with thrilling concert

The show features a return of former concertmaster Benjamin Sung.

Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra Musical Director Christopher Zimmerman, seen here in 2017.
Forum file photo

FARGO —For the better part of a year — and certainly all season long — Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra Music Director Christopher Zimmerman has been talking up Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. He promised a complex work that was technically and physically difficult for the musicians and emotionally draining for the audience.

The conductor delivered on all of the hype Saturday night at North Dakota State University's Festival Concert Hall, leading the FMSO through a thrilling take on Mahler’s masterpiece.

Consisting of five movements and clocking in at over 70 minutes, the composition is the only work performed at this weekend’s concerts. It’s a daring, all-in gamble and one that paid off. The concert will be performed again at 2 p.m., Sunday, March 19.

From the stage before the show, Zimmerman again discussed how daunting the work was.

“I don’t think someone like Mahler will come along again. He was just a force of nature,” he said.


The talk could have served as a last warning to audience members still uncertain about what they were getting into as Zimmerman called the opening movement, “unrelentingly depressing.”

No one in the crowd took it as a warning and I’m pretty sure they’re all happy they stayed as the performance ended with a sustained and well-deserved standing ovation. While the first movement is dark, Zimmerman’s claim that it’s “unrelentingly depressing” may have been a little severe, even if its title, translated from German, is “Funeral March” and played in C-sharp minor.

Composer's monumental Symphony No. 5 to be showcased this weekend by the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra

Zimmerman’s other claim, that Mahler was obsessed by death, rings more true as he composed a song cycle called “Songs on the Death of Children” that was published the same year Symphony No. 5 premiered.

The symphony opens with solo trumpeter Tom Strait calling out in a trio of three-note blasts and from there the full orchestra joins in and starts the procession. The effect is stirring and sobering.

The three-note theme carries through the first movement with variations popping back up throughout the march before it comes to a sudden and subdued end, with a plunk from the cellos.

If the first movement is a march, the second is a whirlwind as Mahler seems to be wrestling with dark and light passages, each taking turns overcoming the other only to get pulled back down among echoes from the first movement. Similarly, it ends with three subtle notes.

Things really pick up in the third movement, “Scherzo,” which Mahler dubbed “Strong and not too Fast.” The section, in D major, shows off more of the musicians with Karin Wakefield and the five other horn players were featured nicely.

Due to the big nature of the show, the back row featuring the horns, trumpets, trombone and tuba were rearranged with the horns in the middle and never have they sounded better, with Wakefield’s solo grandly rigging out.


Before the concert musicians were marveling at the score which featured great detail by Mahler as to how he wanted things to be played. Nowhere was that better illustrated than by the three clarinetists, instructed to play passages with “bells up” above the music stand. It was eye-catching and extra-kudos to them for having to switch clarinets mid-song, often having to transfer a mouth piece quickly then get back to playing. Mahler didn’t make anything easy.

At times the third ventures into a waltz and then later the violins and cellos share a call-and-response pizzicato further lightening the mood before an intermission.

The rest of the symphony got to continue its break through the fourth movement, with the strings taking over on “Adagietto”. A beautiful piece in F major, Zimmerman believes it was written for Mahler’s soon-to-be wife, Alma and the music moves away from its dark beginnings. Played to his specifications of “very slowly,” it seems more about longing and yearning, reflective, but also a great example of Romantic music.

The concert comes to a thrilling climax with the fifth and final movement, racing toward the ending at a dizzying pace. After the final note, Zimmenrman and the other musicians looked up with smiles on their faces, pleased with their achievement.

Well, you couldn’t see all of the smiles. Guest concertmaster Benjamin Sung wore a rainbow colored face mask, but still hugged Zimmerman at the end of the show. Sung served as the concertmaster from 2007 until 2018, when he was already living in Florida and returning for concerts. This time he returned to step-in for current concertmaster, Sonja Bosca Harasim, currently on maternity leave.

While Sung didn’t get a solo, it was so much fun to watch him play again. His body language is unlike any other as he plays with a loose and lively energy. While others remained more stoic, at one point during the final movement he rocked back into his chair and kicked both feet up. Although he was wearing a mask, you could see by the way he played he was having fun.

There were familiar faces and fresh faces. Mahler’s mammoth score required additional musicians and a string of injuries and scheduling conflicts for FMSO members meant the organization had to bring in more than 20 substitutes from out of town.

The new faces will continue at the final concert of the season on April 22 and 23, Zimmerman has a scheduling conflict and David Amado will serve as guest conductor.


FMSO audiences will see more of another new face next season. Interim Executive Director Linda Boyd announced that her replacement, Alan Lambert from Texas will take over for her starting in June.

If you go

What: FM Symphony Orchestra

When: 2 p.m., Sunday, March 19

Where: Festival Concert Hall, NDSU

Info: Tickets range from $32 to $50,

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For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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