Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “Song of the Earth”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Song of the Earth” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend.

Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby and tenor John MacMaster joined Maestro Grant Cooper and his orchestra for a performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).”

Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler is my third favorite composer (just after Chopin and Beethoven), so I was very excited to hear the WV Symphony tackle another of his substantial works. A contemporary of Brahms and Bruckner, Mahler was as famous for his arrogance as he was for his brilliance. His compositions possess a complexity and grandeur to rival Wagner.

“Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)” was composed for two vocal soloists and an orchestra. The sixty-five minute, six-movement symphony is comprised of six independent songs. Mahler’s work contains several Chinese motifs, with lyrics both inspired by and culled directly from Hans Bethge’s German translation of ancient Chinese poetry.

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion with orchestra member Tom Beal, Maestro Cooper encouraged the audience to reflect on what meaning this ancient Chinese poetry – first translated into German and then expounded upon for Mahler’s composition – holds for the 21st century.

An obvious Mahler enthusiast, Cooper called the discovery of Mahler’s music a life-changing event for himself. He shared his passion for this particular piece, his knowledge of the composer’s life and his pleasure at the resurgence in popularity Mahler’s music has enjoyed in recent decades after having been banned by the Nazi regime.

According to Maestro Cooper, Mahler called “Das Lied von der Erde” his most personal work and the poetic scenes of the original Chinese text are clearly painted by Mahler through his music. Cooper also extolled the virtues and multi-layered nature of opera (though “Das Lied von der Erde” is technically a symphony), particularly how the orchestra can reveal a singer’s true thoughts and emotions when they are singing something entirely different.

Rather than opening with another work as usual, Maestro Cooper and his orchestra instead spent the first hour of the performance dissecting Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” While I understood Cooper’s desire to educate the audience in hopes of enhancing their listening experience and greatly appreciated his insights, I felt the musical “spoilers” performed by the symphony during the lecture diminished the power of the work when they finally performed it in its entirety. I think it would have been more effective to have incorporated that segment into the “Preludes” discussion or scheduled it for the second half of the evening. That small complaint aside, however, the actual performance of “Das Lied von der Erde” was lovely.

The first movement, “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery),” masks a lament of human mortality beneath the ignorant bliss of inebriation.

The earth will stand firm for ages – and forever bloom in sping. But you, Mankind, how long will you live then?

The second movement, “Der Einsame im Herbst (The lonely one in Autumn),” is a softer, gentler dirge. The slow death of nature’s beauty as winter approaches mimics the weariness and loneliness of age.

The autumn in my heart has lasted too long

The third movement, “Von der Jugend (Of Youth),” seems to yearn for the careless mirth of youth, but is really a metaphor for the trivial phases of life that can never be recovered.

Friends, beautifully dressed, are drinking and chatting

The fourth movement, “Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty),” sings of the fleeting passions and beauty of youth. Cooper pointed out that Mahler altered the description of the horses in this verse to refer to the trampling effects of life.

The agitation of her heart leaps after him, lamenting

The fifth movement, “Der Trunkene im Frühling (The drunken man in Spring),” contrasts the self-absorption of a drunkard with the renewal of Spring.

What does Spring mean to me? The chance to be drunk!

The finale, “Der Abschied (The Farewell),” is a wistful rumination on life’s passing into death as the day passes into night.

Quiet is my heart, even while waiting for its final hour!

What I enjoy most about the piece is the juxtaposition of voice and instrumentation in Mahler’s arrangement. Rather than focusing heavily on vocals – which can be a composition’s downfall in the wrong hands (or voice) – the singers must compete here with the dynamic energy of the orchestra.

Tenor John MacMaster was especially capable of such a contest. His powerful voice initially engaged in a lilting dance with the orchestra before exploding into the musical equivalent of two thunder clouds colliding.

Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby was also quite good, though she at times lacked the projection necessary to truly dazzle. Granted, it would be difficult for any singer to surpass Audrey Babcock’s performance of Mahler with the WV Symphony in 2009.

Throughout the performance, the WV Symphony played as beautifully as always. The orchestra skillfully and gorgeously portrayed the subtle, emotive nuances of Mahler’s arrangement – from blithe frivolity and radiant jubilance to simmering melancholy and delicate resignation.

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share.

WV Symphony Official Site

Local Event: WV Symphony Presents “Song of the Earth”

Local fans of classical music should check out one of The West Virginia Symphony’s “Song of the Earth” concerts this Friday or Saturday at The Clay Center in Charleston, WV. The concerts begin at 8 p.m. with “Preludes” introductions by Maestro Grant Cooper at 7:00 p.m.

Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby and tenor John MacMaster will accompany the symphony for a performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth).”

Tickets for the show may be purchased at The Clay Center’s box office or via their website.

My review of the concert will be posted early next week.

Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “Valentina Returns”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Valentina Returns” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend with the titular guest pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Valentina accompanied Maestro Grant Cooper and his magnificent orchestra through performances of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Concerto for Piano No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (Pastorale).”

This season marks Maestro Cooper’s tenth year as Artistic Director and Conductor of the WV Symphony, and Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa was the guest soloist at his first performance with the orchestra a decade ago. During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion with Maestro Cooper Saturday night, Valentina revealed she has accumulated fifty concerti in her repertoire since then.

Born in Kiev and currently residing in rural North Carolina, the glamorous Valentina jokingly refers to herself as a “redneck pianist.” She began playing piano when she was just three years old and had her first solo recital at the age of four.

She lists Beethoven and Rachmaninoff among her favorite composers, but said she only became a fan of Rachmaninoff – whom she previously considered “too sentimentally Russian” – after her move to the U.S. Then, she said, “it was love for me.”

After likening the daunting transition from piano competitions to symphonic concerts to a competitive iceskater joining a professional ballet troupe for a performance of Swan Lake, Valentina said: “You play music and try to make people cry a little bit.”

Between “Preludes” and the main performance, members of the WV Symphony’s horn section entertained guests milling about in The Clay Center’s lobby.

I was most excited to hear the symphony perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6,” since Beethoven is my second favorite composer after Frédéric Chopin. Also known as “The Pastorale Symphony,” Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6” was written to represent his love of nature.

Beethoven is famously quoted as calling the work “more an expression of feeling than painting.” He also said of the symphony: “Anyone who has an idea of country life can make out for himself the intentions of the composer without many titles” and “Surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear.” Such sentiments made this scenic piece of music perfectly suited to our Appalachian state.

“Symphony No. 6” is one of the few works that Beethoven named and its full title was “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life.” I do wish more classical works had such short, memorable names, as I can never remember all those numeric titles!

Each of the five moments evokes emotional responses experienced during a walk in the countryside, beginning with the initial “Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the country” movement. Each jaunty step of the journey was propelled by the orchestra’s spirited string section as led by Concertmaster and first violinist, Amelia Chan.

The pretty and pristine second movement, titled “Scene at the Brook,” found the strings imitating the sounds of flowing water and culminated with a bird-like flutter of flute.

The more buoyant third movement picked up the tempo to mimic a “Happy Gathering of Country Folk.” Its gentle merriment ended abruptly with the first drops of rain.

The sound of falling rain ushered in the tempestuous fourth movement, “Thunderstorm,” which eventually tremored with violent thunder and lightning. The storm dissipated slightly, but lingered as a subtle introduction to the fifth movement. The finale was a joyous “Shepherd’s Song” of thanksgiving at the passing of the storm.

Beethoven may not have viewed this composition as a painting, but each note he penned perfectly conjured up the panoramic images he wished to convey with the piece and the WV Symphony gorgeously brought it to life. As I heard someone exclaim during intermission, they “sure play a mean thunderstorm!”

Valentina and her piano then joined the Symphony on stage for Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 3.” I must admit I’m not as well versed in Sergei Prokofiev’s repertoire as I am with Beethoven’s, but he is considered to be one of the greatest composers of the last century. And his work – including portions of “Piano Concerto No. 3” – has often been compared to Sergei Rachmaninoff, who is also one of my favorite composers.

Prokofiev’ first began work on the three-movement concerto in 1913, but didn’t complete it until 1921. According to the Symphony program, Prokofiev gleaned portions of the work from an abandoned string quartet he’d been writing using only the “white notes” of the piano. Despite a lackluster reception when it debuted, the concerto has since become one of Prokofiev’s most popular and critically-acclaimed works.

Like many of the greats, Prokofiev was a child protege who mastered the piano by the age of five and composed his first opera by the age of nine. He was also known for his ego as an adult, though this arrogance seems to have been limited to his compositions. I’ve read several quotes indicating he was very self-conscious about his own playing abilities, particularly when attempting his more difficult works.

His innovative compositions were sometimes controversial with the general public, but the critics hailed him as brilliant. He counted among his more famous fans composers Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel.

What I personally enjoyed most about the Prokofiev piece was how beautifully the arrangement balanced the piano with the rest of the orchestra. Symphonic solos are tricky things, often resulting in one instrument either overshadowing or weakening the entire orchestra. But Prokofiev’s concerto allowed for a lovely and lively, almost acrobatic interplay between Valentina and the other musicians.

A clarinet opened and led the first movement as the orchestra joined in to expand the melody. Valentina’s piano came alive in a sudden burst of exhilarating, crashing rhythm. The entire movement was full of dramatic, intricate nuances, including an almost militant march toward the end. The audience was so astounded by Valentina’s playing that they broke the unspoken ban on applause between movements.

The second movement initially took a step back for a slower display of the piano, but soon the orchestra was struck up again for an exciting, playful race with Valentina’s nimble fingers. This middle section of the piece genre-hopped a bit with jazzy variations on the main theme, which melted into a lovely, slightly eerie calm before exploding again. This flare of full-bodied sound ebbed and flowed, then disappeared into the original theme.

The third movement broke the harmony that preceded it, and Prokofiev apparently deemed the finale an “argument” between the piano soloist and the rest of orchestra. It did seem like Valentina’s frenzied piano was bickering with the horns and strings, as they kept interrupting and contradicting each other. That push and pull churned the orchestra and the tempo of the piece up, building anticipation for a grand crescendo. But the concerto continued to be full of surprising twists and turns. The noise took a sudden drop as the woodwinds danced with Valentina’s keys through a slow, gorgeously quiet theme. Then the argument resumed and finally came that climatic surge and resolution.

A standing ovation prompted two encores by Valentina, who allowed the audience to choose between Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven. I was overjoyed that those of us who shouted “Chopin!” won out. She gave a splendid tribute to my favorite composer. As the lights came on, a man behind me remarked, “quite of a pair of hands…gorgeous.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share.

WV Symphony Official Site

Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “Classical Majesty”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Classical Majesty” concert was held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend and featured guest violinist Corey Cerovsek.

Maestro Grant Cooper led his orchestra through performances of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis,” Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 5, K. 219,” and Antonín Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88.”

The “Classical Majesty” theme centered on musical architecture, focusing on pieces structured around classical principles. Each of the compositions also had some kind of connection to the past, whether it be the influence of a particular composer or a certain style.

I was disappointed that the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion by Conductor Grant Cooper didn’t include its usual insights into the composers and compositions. Instead, it consisted entirely of a mostly biographical interview with guest violinist Corey Cerovsek. The conversation regarding Cerovsek’s background was a little dry for my taste, but I did enjoy the demonstration of his vintage Stradivarius.

“Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” (a.k.a. “The Tallis Fantasia”) by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was written in 1910 and revised in 1919. The piece has been featured in several movies, including Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and inspired the score to Field of Dreams.

The Tallis Fantasia is a variation on a melody originally written by sixteenth century English composer Thomas Tallis. I realize the majority of my readers are not well-versed in classical music, so a modern comparison to this would be when a pop or rap star samples a classic tune – not a true cover, but an incorporation of an older song into a new, original work.

Vaughn Williams was first drawn to Tallis’ theme while researching liturgical material – Thomas Tallis was one of the earliest composers to write for the non-Roman Anglican liturgical service. Tallis also enjoyed a long association with the English royal family during the reign of Elizabeth I.

The work was composed for a double string orchestra, so the WV Symphony was reduced to just the string players for the duration of the piece. After a brief introduction by long-time trumpet player David Porter, Maestro Cooper dedicated the evening’s performance to recently departed symphony supporter Mary Price and gave a moment of silence in her honor.

The piece’s focus on strings – as well as its Elizabethan influence – creates a serene, almost hymnal quality. The Fantasia ebbs and flows with sweeping cinematic flourishes that gracefully pull back into quieter moments of beauty.

I had never heard of Mary Price until last night, but I can think of no better tribute to anyone than the flawless performance the WV Symphony gave of Vaughn Williams’ gorgeous work.

Violin soloist Corey Cerovsek joined the orchestra for the performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 5, K. 219.” The orchestra remained reduced to the string section, with the addition of two oboe players and two horn players.

The concerto begins with the entire ensemble playing the main theme before the solo violinist takes the lead. The final movement includes references to Turkish music, alluding to the failed 1683 Turkish assault on Vienna.

I’ll skip the biographical comments on the composer this time since most people are familiar with Mozart whether they like classical music or not. I’ve personally never understood why Mozart is so widely considered to be the equal, or in some cases the superior, of Beethoven. I guess it’s like what they say about people either being fans of The Beatles or Elvis – I like The Beatles and Mozart, but I love Elvis and Beethoven. At any rate, the work itself is not one of my favorites, but I would enjoy hearing the WVSO perform just about anything.

And it must be said that guest violinist Corey Cerovsek did a splendid job of staying in harmony with the rest of the orchestra while still standing out enough to make the piece interesting. As much as I love Joshua Bell, I think his recording of the same concerto falls flat because his violin blends in too much with the other musicians.

Cerovsek’s performance earned him a standing ovation, which prompted an encore, which prompted another standing ovation, which prompted another encore, which prompted another standing ovation. I’m not kidding. The elderly members of the audience looked exhausted by the time he finally left the stage.

The orchestra returned to its full size for Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88.” The four-movement Symphony was one of the more exhilarating pieces I’ve heard the symphony play, with its heady mix of bouncing jubilance (particularly the cheery “bird call” theme in the first movement) and bombastic bursts of drama in the finale. The performance was beautiful, uplifting, and absolutely sublime.

I was six years old when I first attended the symphony in the mid-1980s. I remember having an intense feeling of wonder and awe at what seemed to be such an immense, powerful force…the same thing I felt when I visited the ocean for the first time the year before. Two decades later, I still feel the same way.

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share. But I did find videos elsewhere…

Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Tallis Fantasia (YouTube video)
Mozart – Violin Concerto No. 5 (YouTube video)
Antonín Dvořák – Symphony No. 8 (YouTube video)

Buy Vaughan Williams @ Amazon
Buy Mozart @ Amazon
Buy Dvořák @ Amazon

WV Symphony Official Site

Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “The Wonder Of Love”

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…

Wagner – Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (YouTube Video)
Mahler – Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (YouTube Video)
Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique (YouTube Video)

And there’s a nice interview with Maestro Grant Cooper by my pal Mona Seghatoleslami at WV Public Broadcasting’s blog Classically Speaking.

Wagner CDs @ Amazon

Mahler CDs @ Amazon

Berlioz CDs @ Amazon