The statute of James Otis, (erected on the left side of Sanders Theatre at Harvard University), depicts Otis speaking out against the British Writs of Assistance of 1761, an act that allowed British custom officials to indiscriminately search homes for “smuggled” goods. On this particular evening at Sanders, (July 19, 2014), the statute of Otis seemed to be taking a break from his impassioned oratory against the Writs of Assistance (which, in their modern versions, still unfortunately ring true today in our post-9/11 world), to lend his ear to the beautiful, burnished sounds coming from the Sanders stage as the Mercury Orchestra, conducted by  their musical director Channing Yu,  performed Gustav Mahler’s sprawling Second Symphony.

Otis would have been pleased to learn that the Mercury Orchestra, founded in 2008, is composed of all volunteer musicians drawn from the Boston area who exemplify the superb amateur talent that exists in this local community. Indeed, the Mercury Orchestra has received many esteemed prizes, including being named the national winner of the 2010 American Prize in Orchestral performance in the Community Orchestra Division. Their conductor, Mr. Yu, is also a prizewinner in conducting; a reputable pianist and violinist and a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. James Otis would have been mighty proud of this local institution.

Otis would have also been delighted with this evening’s performance that laid bare all of the thickets of contrapuntal energy, bright folk melodies and soaring vocal passages contained in Mahler’s Second Symphony. The first movement did not start out triumphantly, (with the trumpet section sounding slightly off key and hesitant in their opening passages), but once the big string passages started the Mercury Orchestra was off to the races – filling the airy Sanders with buoyant string passages and radiant woodwind soars. The sparkling plucks of harps over the collective deep strokes of the second violins provided a soulful contrast between lightness and darkness in the development. Darkness took over towards the end of the first movement, with foreboding final passages played by the bass section with beautiful, glowing resonance. The basses also employed a fascinating technique of striking their strings with their bows in repeated blunt strikes, creating a crackling roar from the rear of the stage.

After the five minute silence between the first and second movements, (specifically instructed by Mahler in the score), the second movement’s pastoral themes were delivered sweet and lilting. The violas were especially radiant in the country festival romp, with the tympani thunderous behind their resonant dance themes. The final, isolated string plucks to this movement were gorgeously rendered in warm, resonant fashion –  sounding like ripened fruit falling one by one onto silent earth.

The last movements were equally captivating with vocal soloists, (soprano Anne Harley and mezzo-soprano Sarah Rose Taylor), joining the Mercury Chorale in sumptuous and urgent vocal passages buoyed by the orchestra’s fervent pace behind them. The brass section came alive in these later movements, glowing with deep metallic punch and regal strides (particularly wonderful in the trombone section). Mahler’s special way with creating a sense of tranquility and emotional arrival in these last movements was particularly well suited to the golden voice of Sarah Taylor as she sang with deep soulfulness nested within the long-held chords of the orchestra and the soft flight of soaring woodwinds. Mahler’s scoring for off-stage percussion and brass instruments in these final movements were beautifully rendered by the Mercury Orchestra members, who strode on and off the Sander stage to create these offstage colors. It was particularly delightful to hear the shimmering sounds from these off-stage notes as they lingered and decayed within the airy confines of Sanders Theatre, (coming as they did from adjacent hallways). This section highlighted again how the Mercury Orchestra is a group of musicians highly attuned to one another and to the unspoken communication with their musical director, Mr. Yu, who clasped the collective consciousness of the orchestra in every one of his small upward gestures (to signal the ring of a triangle off-stage) or descending strokes (to emphasize the clarinet’s solo plunge). The symphony ended with a fury of activity as chorus and orchestra all launched upwards in on unified crescendo that surged forward with great power and vocal glow. The Mercury Orchestra’s next performance at Sanders is on August 16th in a program of Prokofiev, Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky. See their website at for more information.

This opulent performance at Sanders Theatre highlighted how the magnificent hall of Sanders affects the sound created within its wood-paneled walls and distinctive space.

Acoustic music played in Sanders comes wrapped in a velvet glove of warmth and golden hues. For instance, string tone is deep and resonant and individual string sections are less discernible than entire sections playing together in a unity of sound. Similarly, brass instruments sound like they are pushing against an invisible cushion of air that burnishes their metallic attack and decay, creating a rich, regal sound. Even huge cymbal crashes in Sanders are heard more in their ringing lushness and shimmering harmonics, as contrasted to other halls, where cymbals crash with a startling crisp attack of metal on metal.

A recommended recording that contains another radiant performance (contained within a hall with similar qualities of warmth and resonance to Sanders) is the recording by the Philharmonia Orchestra (conducted by Sir Andrew Davis) in their performance of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations [Signum Records]. (This disc was recommended by Roy Gregory, who produces the superb audiophile online publication, The Audio Beat:

This wonderful recording of Elgar’s Enigma will test your system’s ability to discern every soulful phrase in this dazzling performance, including conveying the beautiful airy soundstage of this recording. For instance, the slow building of strings, (in Elgar’s Nimrod Variation), is as lyrically warm and lush as you will hear on a recording, accompanied by deep tone colors and a radiance of tone that approaches the beauty contained in hearing acoustic music within Sanders.

And speaking of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, this vibrant work will be performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood on Friday, August 8, 2014, with Leonard Slatkin conducting. On the same program, violinist Gil Shaham will be performing the Barber Violin Concerto. (The Barber is another favorite, and there is no better recording of it than in the hands of local New England Conservatory conductor Hugh Wolff, conducting the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra with violinist Hilary Hahn [Sony] from a crackling performance in 2000).


The following day at Tanglewood, August 9th, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute (conducted by Paul Haas) will perform another of Mahler’s symphonies, his Fifth Symphony, within the quicksilver setting of Ozawa Hall – quite the beautiful contrast in acoustic space to Sanders!



Nelson Brill is an avid music lover, who brings an audiophile perspective and a passion for the Arts to his reviews of live and recorded music. He has reviewed live concerts and recordings for many years for several online publications, including The Stereo Times and Harry Pearson’s HPSoundings. He has also been a contributing writer and reviewer for several other publications, including JAZZIZ magazine. His past writing for The Stereo Times also included many audiophile equipment reviews and he continues to evolve his own reference equipment to critically evaluate new recordings from an audiophile perspective. For Nelson, the joy of music is to be found everywhere and anywhere and Good Sound matters!

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