The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Two kinds of spring are celebrated superbly in the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s concert of Mozart and Mahler

May 10, 2011
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

There are two very different kinds of spring. In an inspired pairing, both were celebrated convincingly this past weekend by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor John DeMain as they brought the current season to an impressive close.

First, there is the traditional bright and warm spring of daffodils and tulips, of green buds and gentle breezes. That spring was celebrated with Mozart’s early Concerto for Flute and Harp, with MSO principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below top) and principal harpist Karen Beth Atz (below bottom).

Then there is the modern, post-T.S. Eliot spring of “The Waste Land” where “April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

That darker, more spiritually serious and ambitious spring was celebrated with Mahler’s mammoth Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection.” Adding to the massive instrumental forces were the 80-member Madison Symphony Chorus and soloist soprano Julia Faulkner (below top) and mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck (below bottom).

With very few exceptions, the performances were impressively tight and did full justice to this difficult score.

And therein lies the problem for me.

I have no argument with how the music was performed Sunday afternoon. But I do have some arguments with the music itself.

The Mozart is not a big starter for me. It simply can’t compete with Mozart’s best piano or violin concertos or best symphonies or even the unfinished Requiem. It has moments full of zest and charm — which was to some minds probably enhanced by the opening shtick in which Jutt and Atz jostled around on stage to see who could get a clear view of De Main’s baton. But ultimately it is too long, especially in the last movement, and too superficial.

The concerto has some undeniably beautiful moments and melodies, especially in the middle movement. But it could stand some tightening. Only rarely, it seems to me, has the harp or the flute ever really been the carrier of profundity or poignancy in the the way that strings or other wind instruments like the clarinet or oboe, the piano or the voice, can.

Mozart (below) was a master who knew how to orchestrate and how to charm. In this concerto, given an absolutely first-rate performance by Jutt and Artz, who both have virtuoso talents to perform their virtuosic parts, as well as by the scaled down orchestra, he did both. But charm has its limits.

Then we come to Mahler.

Here I have to be honest and confess: I have a Mahler Problem. There is only one Mahler symphony that, taken as a whole, I really get into and enjoy from beginning to end. That is his first symphony, the “Titan.”

The other eight completed symphonies all seem to me like rewritings or permutations of the first. And although there are fabulous movements — I enjoy last movement of the third, the first movements of the fourth and eighth, the slow movements of the fifth, sixth and ninth – I find that the autobiographical and angst-stricken Mahler (below) likes to meander too much for my taste. I need a tighter sense of structure, of logic, to engage and involve me.

In short, Mahler always seems given to extremes, and he pushes me to do the same. Either I am extremely moved by what I am hearing – and some of the second symphony’s most dynamic passages did exactly that — or else I lose interest and my attention wanders.

In that I was not alone during the 90-minute-long symphony, judging by the crowd around me on Sunday afternoon. The cough quotient went way up. More cellophane candy and cough drop wrappers were crinkled. More people dozed and snored. And one woman near me even started to fiddle with the Velcro straps on her shoes during a soft passage. These are not good signs of audience involvement or interest.

To his credit, conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) seems to have shaped his reading of this work more than I remember from his last performance in 1996. And it certainly proved an appropriate and timely piece to program as a way to mark the centennial of Mahler’s death at 51 on May 18, 1911.

Of course, when the last 10 or 15 minutes arrive Mahler senses an ending and ratchets up the beauty, drama and momentum of the work, so that it really does carry you along and elevate you. As the symphony’s subtitle suggests, you arise reborn — from the death of tedium. And so yes, you can see why the MSO, DeMain and combined forces got great cheers and a prolonged standing ovation. It was done so well! Plus it was over!!

The MSO instrumentalists, chorus and soloists deserved such praise after such a marathon performance. From the opening cello drive to the closing vocal transcendence of the soloists and chorus, they poured their hearts into this difficult music. They worked hard at making beauty — at least as much as each composer demands and then some.

Other critics more sympathetic to both the Mozart concerto and the Mahler symphony might agree more with your own assessment.

So here they are:

Here is a review for Isthmus by John W. Barker:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=33425

And here is a review for The Capital Times and 77 Square by Lindsay Christians:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/article_fc554664-78a8-11e0-a9fd-001cc4c002e0.html

And here is the review for Dane101 by Greg Hettmansberger:

http://www.dane101.com/music/2011/05/07/madison_symphony_orchestra_closes_season_with_momentous_mozart_and_mahler_that_has_

What did you think of the concert?

Of the Mozart?

Of the Mahler?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

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