Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Magnificent Mahler

Music in Cincinnati
Mary Ellyn Hutton
February 4, 211

What is Fafner (the dragon in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle) doing in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony?

Ask Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra principal bassist Owen Lee.

Lee put his finger on something in the CSO “Prelude” video shown before Thursday evening’s CSO concert at Music Hall, which featured the Mahler symphony led by CSO music director Paavo Järvi.

“To me it’s very childlike, sort of like a fairy tale," said Lee. "Yes, there’s angst and terror and doubt, but it’s like in a nursery rhyme -- that kind of terror, a Brothers Grimm story or ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’”

Mahler’s Seventh is the least known of his symphonies but may be coming into its own in the complex 21st century. Mahler stated (to Sibelius) that a symphony must be “like the world” and in the Seventh that includes the world of dreams. Sometimes referred to as “Lied der Nacht” (“Song of the Night”), it is in five-movements shaped like an arch. The keystone is a spooky Scherzo framed by two movements designated “Nachtmusik” (“Night Music”). The opening and closing movements can be seen as night yielding to day.

It is a magnificent showpiece for orchestra, with quadruple winds and brasses, two harps, strings and a world of percussion, including tambourine, glockenspiel, tam-tam- tubular bells, cowbells and rute (birch brush, struck against the rim of the bass drum). Everyone has something important to do and the comparison with a concerto for orchestra is not far-fetched.

It is also 80 minutes long and was performed without intermission, so Mahler fanatics had a banquet to feast upon. (According to statistics compiled by the web site Bachtrack.com, Mahler is performed more often, compared to other composers, in the U.S. than he is worldwide, and Music Hall was well stocked with his fans Thursday.)

The concert opened with the second of four anniversary fanfares commissioned by the CSO for the 50th anniversary of WGUC-FM and Järvi’s tenth anniversary as music director. German composer Jörg Widmann’s “Souvenir bavarois” (“Remembering Bavaria”) did homage to Mahler, too, with its cartoonish color and march-like conception. There were with rat-a-tat snare drum, oompah band, winds playing out of tune (deliberately), a fiddle solo and general pie-in-your-face humor. (Järvi said he had advised Widmann to write something funny and he did.)

It was a somewhat solemn transition to the Mahler, which opened with dark shudders in the winds and strings and a big solo for baritone horn (bravo Peter Norton). It soon morphed into a world of fury, with a big march theme and a more lyrical counter subject. After a big buildup followed by a free fall, the listener was suddenly transported to the Day of Judgment as envisioned in Mahler’s Second Symphony, with trumpet calls and intimations of universal love. It was not to last, however. After an ethereal buildup of harp and strings, the double basses brought things back to earth by sounding the baritone horn motif. The march theme returned and the movement drew to a foreshortened conclusion.

Principal French hornist Elizabeth Freimuth sounded glorious on the buoyant opening theme of “Nachmusik I,” where she was echoed by hornist Duane Dugger, then enveloped by a flurry of bird calls, as the entire wind section seemed to come home to roost. The mood here was chipper, but with plenty of subterranean rumbles (the double basses, Jennifer Monroe on contra-bassoon, Ronald Aufmann’s bass clarinet) and “witchy” punctuation by the strings playing on the wood of their bows. Cow bells were heard for a bucolic touch, but there was something sinister about it all.

The central Scherzo, marked “Schattenhaft” (“shadowy”) makes no bones about it with its demonic waltz, screeching violins and loud snaps of pizzicato by the cellos and basses. One monster after another seemed to materialize (Lee on double bass, Christian Colberg on viola, etc.).

After a pause to tune, the CSO resumed with “Nachtmusik II" (marked “Andante amoroso”). Paul Patterson on mandolin and Timothy Berens on guitar provided the serenade-like atmosphere, and principal players, including concertmaster Timothy Lees and principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn took turns on the yearning theme that recurs throughout.

The spell was instantly broken by the Rondo Finale, with a fusillade of timpani ( Patrick Schleker) and brasses. The trumpets nailed some impressive high notes, and Järvi literally jumped into the fray at one point. What gives here? Anything, seemingly, including parodies of Wagner (“Die Meistersinger” and the dragon Fafner from "The Ring"), Sir Arthur Sullivan (“Mikado”), and enough bluster to face down whatever terrors remained from the night. The march theme from the opening movement returned, as if to raise an issue, but it was drowned in a sea of tubular bells and all-stops-pulled rejoicing.

The concert was recorded for broadcast by WGUC-FM and for a possible CD on the CSO’s new label, CSO Media. The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday at Music Hall. Tickets begin at $10. Call (513) 381-3300.


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