Monday, April 12, 2010

Kansas City Symphony: Mahler 4th and Barber

Mahler's Symphony # 4 is his shortest (still at about 1 hour, hardly a trifle) and his most gentle in many respects. The orchestra required is also almost a chamber orchestra in comparison to his other symphonies; for example the 4th has no trombones or tuba and smaller percussion ensemble. No cowbells, hammers, organ, and only 7 brass, usually Mahler has that many horns alone. For a long time, I did not fully appreciate the glories and subtleties of this work, but as I get older and gentler, I realize just what a jewel this piece is.

Famed American soprano Heidi Grant Murphy joined Music Director Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony for most a well conceived and enjoyable program of "music evocative of a simpler time": Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin", Barber "Knoxville Summer of 1915" and the aforementioned Mahler 4th.

The opening work, "Le Tombeau de Couperin", Ravel's homage to the Baroque suite and fallen friends from World War I, benefited from Stern's well controlled performance and the always excellent Symphony winds. "Le Tombeau" is practically a concerto for winds and oboe anyway, thus the technically brilliant contributions of the new principal oboist Mingjia Liu were well appreciated.

Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is based on a short prose poem by James Agee. One of Barber's undisputed masterpieces, Knoxville poignantly evokes a simpler time long past through its lush, rich and wistful textures. The setting of the prose can be problematic since there is of course no rhyme or much rhythmic meter to the words. Barber chooses not to fight the prose but underpin it with lyrical, rhapsodic music, allowing the words to weave in and out of the textures to tell their story.

Grant Murphy literally threw herself in to the role of story teller, her light but clear and shining voice perfectly evoking an adult breathlessly recalling simple joys that with time have become almost magical. At times her light voice made it difficult to understand her in Barber's more thickly scored sections (the Lyric's lousy acoustics do not help at all of course), but even without understanding every nuance, the audience was treated to a fine performance of this ravishing work, one likely not to be heard again soon.

It maybe Mahler's shortest, lightest scored in number symphony, but it is hardly a simple piece. The nostalgic mood is achieved through some fiendishly complex music. The Symphony was in fine show on Saturday, the winds and brass were excellent, the strings quite competent (but really needed a few extras to better balance the ensemble) and the important percussion colorful without overwhelming the piece. The 3rd movement was sublime, one of those rare moments in orchestral concerts where everyone is of one mind and purpose, leaving us with a splendid and moving performance. The orchestra could be raucous when needed, especially in the dancing scherzo. Concertmistress Kanako Ito was marvelous in the strange "Totentanz" scordatura violin in the demonic scherzo.

Grant Murphy returned for the last movement's solo "Das himmlische Leben", an earlier setting from the "Wunderhorn" songs. Himmlische Leben depicts a sweet and naive vision of "heavenly life", excitingly describing the preparation of a feast for the heavenly hosts. Despite a gruesome sacrifice of a lamb and heartless killing of an ox, the child goes on to describe all the culinary treats of heaven. Frankly this has been the reason I have not always been so fond of the 4th, I can not get past the silliness of the poem, but there is no denying Mahler set it with some of his most tender and colorful music. Grant Murphy was again a bit light and hard to hear, but her voice was suitably child like and so full of wonder (she has a wonderful stage presence no doubt honed by her extensive opera career)that we can enjoy her singing about:

Good greens of every sort
grow in the heavenly vegetable patch,
good asparagus, string beans,
and whatever we want.

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