West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “The Wonder of Love” concert was held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this weekend and featured guest mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock.
Maestro Grant Cooper led his orchestra through performances of Richard Wagner’s “Prelude to Tristan und Isolde,” Gustav Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen,” and Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”
The Pittsburgh Symphony kindly granted the use of The Verdin church bells for the latter, and the nearly 600-pound cast iron bells were hidden off-stage as Berlioz originally instructed when he composed the piece.
During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion, Grant Cooper shared some of the very specific instructions Berlioz wrote for his “Symphonie Fantastique.” These included the particular kind of stick to be used for striking the drums and the infamous hidden bells.
Cooper also gave a preview demonstration of the range in sound of the bells – from a soft, muffled illusion of distance to the thunderous peals of a looming cathedral bell tower.
The Symphony began with the “Prelude” to German composer Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” a three-act opera depicting the legendary medieval romance between a Cornish knight and an Irish princess (a story which also inspired the Arthurian stories).
Wagner’s composition was mostly based on Gottfried von Strassburg’s poem “Tristan,” but it was also inspired by Wagner’s affair with married author Mathilde Wesendonck as well as the theories of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
“Tristan und Isolde” is considered to be one of the most influential works of the nineteenth century (the 2006 James Franco film Tristan and Isolde was based on Wagner’s opera), and its tonality is often credited as turning classical music in a new direction for the early twentieth century. Wagner was influenced by Weber and Beethoven, but his own work would inspire Mahler, Bruckner, Debussy, and countless other composers.
I’ve always thought Wagner’s works were a bit overrated, but “Tristan und Isolde” is the exception. The “Prelude” possesses a sweeping, cinematic beauty and elegance, and it was handled with tender grace in the many capable hands of the West Virginia Symphony.
Award winning mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock joined the orchestra for “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” by Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler. This was the piece I was most excited about, as I’ve recently become enamoured with Mahler’s music (particularly his eighth symphony). After Beethoven and Bach, Mahler has skyrocketed to the top of my favorite composers list.
A contemporary of Brahms and Bruckner, Mahler was known to be intelligent, sophisticated, neurotic, and egotistical. Considering the brilliance, scope, and complexity of his compositions, I don’t blame him at all for such arrogance.
The four-movement “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” (Songs of a Wayfarer) was Mahler’s first song cycle and was apparently inspired by the end of Mahler’s love affair with soprano Johanna Richter. You can read lyrics from all four songs at Wikipedia.
Singer Audrey Babcock was incredible. A stunning and satuesque beauty, her magnificent voice was perfectly suited to “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.” As much as I love Mahler, this particular piece is a tricky one to carry off successfully since it relies as much on the vocalist as it does the orchestra. I’ve heard recordings that fell flat because the singer’s voice lacked the power to infuse the notes with the great emotion they require. Fortunately, Babcock’s voice was as emotive and lovely during the verses that utilized her lower register as it was in the breathtaking high notes. I was shocked that the audience did not give her a standing ovation.
French composer Hector Berlioz’ “Symphony Fantastique” is said to be the greatest first symphony ever written, though it was revised repeatedly a few years after the original composition in 1830. His orchestration was groundbreaking in its time – particularly the use of multiple timpani, bells, brass, and his trick of having the string players bounce the bow’s wood on the strings.
Berlioz briefly studied medicine before enrolling at the Paris Conservatory and supporting himself as a music reviewer for a local newspaper. His music was heavily influenced by Beethoven.
“Symphony Fantastique” was born after Berlioz saw a performance of Hamlet starring Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. It was love at first sight for the composer and he poured his emotion into the symphony in hopes of capturing the attention of the new object of his affection.
In concept, the five-movement “Symphony Fantastique” is a bit like a classical Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas in that it follows the imaginary opium-induced visions of a young, lovesick artist. These drug-fueled hallucinations end with the artist being executed for murdering his beloved.
I’ve personally always found the first two movements boring, but my disinterest in the beginning of the piece was no reflection on the Symphony’s performance. The orchestra’s playing was impeccable as always.
Everything changed for me with the beautiful third movement, in which Berlioz made splendid use of the English horn and oboe to represent a country shepard and shepardess.
The fourth movement of “Symphony Fantastique” is astoundingly dramatic, and the orchestra’s performance was so fantastic that the audience burst into spontaneous applause between movements (breaking the unspoken rule to hold applause until the end of the symphony).
Maestro Cooper responded to the outburst by turning to the audience with a mischievous grin and saying, “It gets even better.”
Truer words were never spoken. The final movement was ominous, otherworldly, and well worth the wait. And oh the bells!
Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share. But I did find videos elsewhere…
And there’s a nice interview with Maestro Grant Cooper by my pal Mona Seghatoleslami at WV Public Broadcasting’s blog Classically Speaking.