When summer comes, Mercury Orchestra rises up

The Mercury Orchestra, conducted by Channing Yu, performs during the summers with volunteer musicians. This year’s performances ended July 23 with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor. (Photos: Frank He, top; Rick Peckham, bottom)

Two men stand on platforms in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre on a hot July night. The taller one, draped in a white marble cloak, clutches a stone scroll. The shorter figure wears a black dress shirt and waves a baton. The tall one is a statue of 19th century Harvard President Josiah Quincy. The shorter, living man’s name is Channing Yu, and he is conducting a dress rehearsal of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor the night before the Mercury Orchestra’s July 23 concert.

The orchestra repeats the closing measures seven times. The fifth time, Yu pauses to talk to the trumpets. He points the baton to the left. “Glassier.” The right. “Duller.” And the middle. “Softer.”

Yu molds sound through the twitch of a baton, a sway, a lean of the shoulder.

“Every time you play a note, think about its purpose,” he told the musicians. “Think: What can I accomplish with this chord?”

Mercury Orchestra isn’t a conventional orchestra. It’s made up of amateur Cambridge-area musicians who play  — unlike for the volunteer, year-round Cambridge Symphony Orchestra — only during the summer. For fun. They practice twice a week, two and a half hours a day, for a month.

“Taking time to participate in an orchestra is a very big sacrifice, and these musicians have busy lives and busy careers,” said Justin Albstein, Mercury Orchestra’s general manager and one of its French horn players. Albstein, who has practiced law at firms in Boston and Washington, D.C., founded the ensemble with Yu after managing two productions at Harvard’s Lowell House Opera. As a young conductor, Yu served as artistic director and conductor at Lowell House from 2006-10, as well as conductor from 2002-03.

“We wanted to incorporate experiences from the opera company and branch out with some of the same members, but take a different context and approach,” Albstein says.

Anyone can audition, and members range from high school students to past professionals. Despite the volunteer nature of the orchestra, it won last year’s American Prize in orchestral performance in the 26-state community orchestra division.

Albstein cites the cohesive nature of the group.  “There’s a sense of working toward a common goal,” he says.  “Everybody does this because they love music — we’re not doing it for profit or a resume or a profession.”

The last rehearsal is filled with cheers and musician-style applause — largely foot taps. There were more foot taps than usual; the orchestra boasts 105 musicians this year, the most since its 2008 founding. The large number was needed to carry out Mahler’s ambitious instrumental scheme. That includes someone to play an instrument Mahler invented, but never named. Built by Wayne Peterson, the large wooden box with two rounded rectangular holes is struck with a wooden mallet. The nameless instrument looks harmless, but Albstein says it sounds frightening.

The piece employs a variety of other musical techniques as well, such as harmonics and col legno, or tapping on the string with the stick of the bow, and the orchestra is reinforced by a large wind section and percussion that includes cowbells. The result is a novel, thunderous and at times ethereal listening experience.

“Channing did a great job,” trumpet player Kenny Smith says after the run-through. He polishes his trumpet and places it gingerly in its case. “[Yu] has great musical ideas and he doesn’t order us around. He gets us to play our best.”

Rachel Massey, associate principal violin II, expresses one wish at the end of rehearsal: “Hopefully it won’t be as hot tomorrow as it was today.”

The next day, the weather is warm outside and inside the theater. Nearly 750 people come to the concert, by Yu’s estimate, and several fan themselves with programs. Mahler’s unnamed instrument lives up to its reputation: An infant begins wailing after a particularly raucous segment and has to be ushered out. A collective bang from the percussion section in the finale causes people in the audience to jump.

But the finale ends not with a bang, or the stop of a bow. Not chased by vibrato. Just a pluck, an A-minor pluck.

Afterward, audience member Mikhaela Houston is buzzing. “It was … wow,” she says, assessing the performance of the orchestra and Yu. “I liked how he did the final few notes.”

“And that big bang!” Houston says, jumping and thrusting out her arms, then smoothing her dress. “Mahler sets souls free. It was absolutely fantastic.”

Like the pluck — brief and poignant — the Mercury Orchestra is gone. But the orchestra is to return again next summer for its fifth year.

This post was updated Aug. 15, 2011, to reflect Yu’s estimate of concert attendees.

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