The climax of the Ann Arbor Symphony season will unquestionably be its performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony in the Michigan Theater on April 30. That mighty work not only calls for a huge orchestra, plus women’s and children’s choirs and soprano soloist, it demands from all of them every ounce of their stamina and virtuosity plus a fair amount of their spirituality. To get ready for the challenge, the symphony started its season with appropriate works: Saint-Saens’ grandiloquent Third in September and Beethoven’s portentous Second in October.

But Mahler’s Third is made up of more than heaven-storming moments for full orchestra. There are also many passages scored predominantly for brass, others featuring the woodwinds, and a string-soaked finale of infinite beauty. So, to prepare, the symphony’s November concert spotlighted just the string section, while the opening work in January featured just the winds.

Or at least parts of their string and wind sections: not counting conductor Arie Lipsky, there were twenty-eight musicians on stage for the opening, Grieg’s Holberg Suite, in November. That number dropped to seventeen, including the three soloists, for Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and rose to thirty for Dvorak’s Serenade. And the numbers were even lower in January with just pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons performing Mozart’s Serenade (illness kept me from attending that night).

The players that were onstage in November were technically fine, but they’d clearly rehearsed some pieces more than others. Phrasing in the Holberg Suite was so minimal that Grieg’s glorious melodies rarely sang, details were so smudged his glowing textures seldom shone, and transitions were so chancy his clean-cut structures didn’t always hold together. Worse yet, the players in the Brandenburg seemed to be sight-reading their parts–and Lipsky appeared to be beating time to keep them together.

Dvorak’s Serenade was, however, quite good. Lipsky’s phrasing let the strings sing, while his judicious use of tempo rubato held the forms together. The result was a performance of considerable charm, though, sadly, not much depth. A full-sized string section and more rehearsal time would likely have helped. But Lipsky himself stayed on top of the music rather than getting inside it, so the Tempo di waltz was much too dry while the Larghetto was far too subdued.

One hopes for more in Mahler. But while the symphony will surely field more players, whether they’ll allow sufficient rehearsal time is still an open question.