Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cleveland Orchestra: Schubert and Mahler

Schubert: Hymn to the Holy Spirit, D964 [Hymnus an den heiligen Geist]*
Schubert: Night Song in the Forest, D913 [Nachtgesang im Walde]*
Schubert: Song of the Spirits over the Waters, D714 [Gesang der Geister uben den Wassern]
Mahler: Symphony No. 5^
* with the Men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus; Robert Porco, conductor.
^ David Robertson, conductor

Pierre Boulez was originally scheduled to conduct this weekend's concerts, while I certainly would have attended this weekend's concerts regardless I would be lying if I said I wasn't at least slightly looking forward to hearing Mr. Boulez conduct again (previous appearances with the orchestra here and here). Earlier this week Mr. Boulez withdrew from the announced Mahler No. 7 leaving David Robertson, Saint Louis Symphony Music Director, to guide the Orchestra through Mahler No. 5 and rather unexpectedly withdrew from the entire program earlier this week "on the advice of his ophthalmologist", leaving Director of Choruses Robert Porco to the three Schuberts.

Based on comments I've heard from those who attended Thursday's performance and a rather grim introduction by Executive Director Gary Hanson I was afraid I'd have to fasten my seat belt and prepare for a bumpy ride. Fortunately, the slippery roads were found only outside the hall and performance was relatively smooth sailing.

Though the Orchestra gives few hints into what really goes on in the preparation for a normal week's program as far as distribution of materials and rehearsals, one can only assume that the cohesiveness and musical satisfaction from tonight's program is a testament to the versatility and adaptability of the Orchestra's musicians, conductors, and support staff.

The three Schubert songs were played without pause for applause and in sum totalled about thirty minutes. For all three the instrumental music was clearly in the back seat to the vocals and I can't say that I really loved any of them. Overall -- and I'm not sure if this was a deliberate decision on Mr. Porco's part or driven by the source material -- but the lack of vocal vibrato made the men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus that much more enjoyable to listen to -- and infinitely easier to follow the source texts. Both Hymn to the Holy Spirit and Night Song In the Forest seemed to be limited to winds only, while Song of the Spirits over the Waters was the firm territory of the strings. Hymn to the Holy Spirit was notable for its tender vocal beginning; Night Song in the Forest notable for a galloping middle section. Song of the Spirits over the Waters, my favorite of the three began with a beep haunting stroll before becoming big with a number of overlapping musical and human voices.

The performance after intermission though was magical: The five movements of the Mahler were everything I would expect from the Orchestra and kept me on the edge of my seat; it's worth noting that throughout -- but especially in the fifth movement -- the musicians body language exuded a tremendous degree of self-satisfaction. Part of the attraction to the symphony was the sheer variety of colors and emotions drawn out over the course of its five movements. The program notes reference a life in reverse chronology -- beginning with death and (presumably) ending somewhere around adolescence, but from the material that wasn't entirely clear. That didn't diminish the enjoyment of the piece.

The first movement, though labeled as a funeral march, had a triumphant opening, quickly turning mellow, followed by a frantic passage that reminded me as a chase before ending on something that vaguely resembled a waltz that was announced by a very dignified timpani roll. The second movement meanwhile progressed from a stormy rage through a state of confusion to a relaxed and delicate lament before ending with chimes and an air of mystery.

Part II, beginning with the third movement scherzo was the most colorful of the movements in a 64-color box set of crayons exuding the feelings of a confident youth with a loving vision leading into a solo string pizzicato and dramatic strings punctuated and paused by an intruding horn not unlike the commercials in a television drama.

Part III consisting of the fourth and fifth movements was my favorite part and the fourth movement (Adagietto) marking my favorite movement of the piece. The first part of the movement is dominated by the harp with the other strings before the harp fades away and the tenderness of the movement (and thoughts of the impending Valentines Day) causing one nearly to forget the harp's contribution to the movement until it reappears near the end of the movement. The Rondo-Finale Allegro fifth movement was bright and optimistic; the final bars of which were met by calls of Bravo and a standing ovation virtually before the final note had finished reverberating around the hall.


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