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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Concert Review: Shattering the Silence

The Orchestra of St. Luke's opens its Carnegie Hall season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The man in the hat: David Robertson.
Photo by Nic Walker.
This is a banner year for the Orchestra of St. Luke's, the middleweight champ among New York's standing orchestra ensembles. On Thursday night, the Orchestra celebrated thirty years of subscription concerts at Carnegie Hall with a program offering a thorough exploration of two very different sides of Beethoven, as well as five Wunderhorn songs by Gustav Mahler sung by the veteran baritone Thomas Hampson. The guest conductor was David Robertson, a name well-known to Carnegie concertgoers for his visits at the helm of the St. Louis Symphony.

The most interesting part of the evening was the first work, the Carnegie Hall premiere of Testament by Australian composer Brett Dean. Mr. Dean's work was inspired by Beethoven's own "Heilingstadt Testament", a letter written to his two brothers when he learned of the permanence of his deafness. The Heilingstadt document was discovered after the composer's death. It starts as a combination will and suicide note and yet turns into a determination to live, create and make music, capturing the fierce determination to create that characterized Beethoven's later years.

In his tone poem, Mr. Dean recreates the sensation of Beethoven's encroaching deafness by having his string players use two bows, one free of the rosin that helps a player express volume and power through their instrument. The rosin-less bows created a ghostly, horror-house sound, of slithering glissando runs that teased the outer edge of the ear's range. This unsettling effect yielded to fully played notes in the brass and strings (now with rosin) until the melodies died into nothingness once more. It was a brilliant idea, carefully executed by Mr. Robertson and his forces.

Thomas Hampson is now a dean among American interpreters of Mahler's art songs. Here, he offered a carefully cultivated bouquet of five lieder clipped from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This cycle of poems inspired Mahler's first four symphonies, including the heaven-storming Resurrection and the ever-popular Fourth. Four of the songs presented here featured melodies and words that are heard once more in those later works. The two outliers: "Die irdische Leben" and "Lied des Verfolgten im Turm" are equally inspired.

Mr. Hampson used his dry, versatile baritone to good effect throughout this collection, injecting wry humor into the opening "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt", the theme from which shows up in Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. The "Lied des Verfolgten" featured the singer switching voices as he told the tale of an imprisoned soldier and his lady-love. "Die irdische leben" is the grimmest song here, a dark tale of want, need and starvation. "Die himmlische leben" followed, the closing movement of Mahler's Fourth and a portrait of happy, well-fed playing children who also happen to be...dead.

The set concluded with "Urlicht" ("Primeval light") itself the song that makes up the whole of the fourth movement of the Resurrection Symphony. Here, it was the St. Luke's brass that carried the day, with warm horn tones supporting Mr. Hampson's portrait of a pilgrim seeking grace and enlightenment. This carefully chosen set was an opportunity to hear how this smaller, yet deeply experienced orchestra would play Mahler's music, and to show that they play it very well indeed.

The second half featured Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 a work in which the composer let his love of dance music caper merrily to the fore. Taken in two sections, these four movements were played with hard-driving energy, crisp, warm strings and the joint experience of a conductor and orchestra coming together with brilliant results. And yes, the somber Allegretto had all the grace and power that should be expected. Its buildup of tension was cheerfully detonated in the last two movements, the joyous Scherzo and the pell-mell Presto finale that thunders to a close in a glorious storm of strings and brass. 

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