Monday, June 09, 2008

Mahler's Fourth, along with Puccini and Gerber, performed in Alexandria

Yesterday, Sunday June 8, some neighbors a few houses down held a volleyball and pool party with an odd sight: a violist performing underneath a veranda. He said he did not know the solo part of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, or Bartok’s famous viola concerto. But it was a fitting sight on the way to a concert.

Late yesterday The Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Orchestra held its last concert of the season, with a most interesting selection. Soprano Tia Wortham was featured, with Ulysses S. James conducting. The concert took place at the Bishop Ireton High School (Catholic) in Alexandria VA, near Duke Street approaching downtown.

The concert opened with Ms. Wortham singing Donetta’s Aria “Chi il bel sogno” (“Donetta’s lovely dream”) from Giacomo Puccini’s La Rondine. The opera, completed during World War I, was Puccini’s next to last. The aria is sparing but exhibits some of the harmonic opulence of Puccini’s Turandot (which I saw performed in Dallas in 1980) that would follow.

The next piece was Steven R. Geber’s Symphony #2. His First Symphony had been performed by the same group earlier this season. The Second runs about twenty minutes and bears the subtitle “Elegies and Fanfares.” The outer two movements sound to me like a mixture of Copland and William Schuman. The last movement uses a theme from the composer’s Fanfare for the Voice of America, written after 9/11 for a memorial concert. Curiously, the symphony ends quietly and inconclusively, where I was expecting a peroration like the close of Copland’s massive Third Symphony (the finale of which incorporates Copland’s own Fanfare for the Common Man). The Intermezzo is not a slow movement, but more like an Allegretto (in the spirit of Beethoven’s Seventh, perhaps, as so featured in the recent hit film “The Fall”), with scale-like woodwind figures that stop and start, rather giving the effect of a featherweight scherzo.

The featured work for the concert was Mahler’s Symphony #4 in G Major. This work is the last of the Wunderhorn symphonies and seems like the lightest. The first movement is said to evocate the memories of Haydn, but its 18 minutes show considerable complexity. The music opens with the humorous B minor sleighbells before settling into the winter sunshine of G Major. The exposition is full and partially repeated, before a complex development with lots of wind snippets and counterpoint ensues. The climaxes, though frequent, seem jolly. The Coda is long and, in the manner of Beethoven, almost like a second development. The movement seems like a commentary on the way Beethoven developed his compositional style more from Haydn than Mozart, and the music recapitulates all of the traditions of that period, concluding on two loud G Major chords as periods.

The scherzo is well known for the use of the solo violin tuned a step high for scordatura. The first violinist actually picked up a different violin (reminding me of the garden party that I had witnessed). The music is in C Major, but the theme is cleverly constructed to sound polytonal and take advantage of the out-of-tune sound of the violin. This sort of effect would be used later by Alban Berg in his operas. Formally, the music is a Landler, a kind of Viennese waltz. Listeners who know Mahler now notice the brief quotes from future works (the fifth and ninth symphonies). The last two notes of the movement are fortissimo in the woodwinds, a conclusion that caused squawk on the inner groves of the first stereo record I ever owned (Mahler’s Fourth as performed by Klemperer, which I got, along with Beethoven’s Ninth, on Christmas Day in 1962 – hence I associate the Fourth with winter – and that, as readers of my blogs know, was not a good time in my life.)

By the way, the "polytonal" scherzo theme resembles the opening of the tune "A Place and Time to Call our Own" from the CBS/Paramount sci-fi series "The 4400." But Mahler's handling of the melodic concept is much more interesting.

The slow movement, Poco Adagio, is expansive and seems to be written in the variation form of late Beethoven. This performance took it a bit too fast. Toward the end, the music builds to a massive “sunrise” climax in the distant key of E Major, before migrating back to end quietly on the dominant D and lead to the finale, which is simply a song “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”) from “Das Knaben Wunderhorn”, sung with orchestra by Ms. Wortham. The music is playful and childlike, recalling the sleighbells, but for the last stanza, curiously descends a “chromatic third” to E Major, in which the symphony ends.

Mahler originally considered adding this song as a seventh movement to the Third Symphony (which I heard the Minnesota Orchestra perform in 2002), which would have been a mistake. The Third Movement ends powerfully with its majestic D Major slow movement. (Curiously, the famous first movement migrates from D Minor to F Major, so it’s fitting to end in D). I spoke to Ms. Wortham during the reception, and she said that the descent of the “chromatic third” is supposed to ensure a sense of calm. I always felt that it still leaves a question mark, at the end of the Wunderhorn period. Mahler’s next symphony would be written in a totally new style for him.

I also met Mr. Gerber during the intermission.

Update: June 11

Maryland PBS today aired a performance by the Cleveland Orchestra in Florian Abbey in Linz, Austria, conducted by the youthful Franz Wesler-Most, of Anton Bruckner's Symphony #5 in B-flat. And that's both major and minor, as the main motive has the D flattened most of the time. The work oscillates between religiosity and driving energy. The first movement crashes to a close with an outburst that almost seems to conjure off images of Smallville's Clark "speeding" off to Metropolis. The finale is a massive fugue that combines all the motives of the previous movements, and ends with a majestic brass chorale. The mood of the work fits an abbey, but the conductor's tempos were a little fast, particularly in the Adagio.

Would Oprah approve of the WMPO's shopping bag?

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