Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “Mahler 1: Titan”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Mahler 1: Titan” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend.

Italian pianist Domenico Codispoti joined Maestro Grant Cooper and his orchestra for a performance of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor” and Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1 in D major.”

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion Saturday night, Maestro Cooper and guest pianist, Domenico Codispoti, discussed training for Mozart’s concerto. I appreciated Codispoti’s remark that people still “need to hear Mahler and Mozart.”

Maestro Cooper also explained the technical aspects of tailoring a piano’s tuning to the soloist, the orchestra and the work being performed. Codispoti spoke of the progressive intimacy between a pianist and his piano as well as the role a technician plays in that particular relationship.

Codispoti exited the stage when Cooper began to talk of Mahler. 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death, leading to this tribute by the WV Symphony. Cooper shared portions of Mahler’s biography with the sparse “Preludes” audience, particularly the prejudice the composer faced and how he combined the earthiness of traditional Jewish music with the elegance of classic Viennese music. One fact that was new to me was what Cooper described as Mahler’s railing against “the star system” – a common practice at the time of using popular singers rather than those whose voices were best suited to the material.

Cooper’s affection and admiration for Mahler’s music mirror my own, yet heightened by his own knowledge as a conductor and composer. He expertly compared the success of a piece of music to that of any great work of art or entertainment – to be truly captivating requires both depth and character. He ended with an architectural metaphor to explain the struggle a conductor and orchestra face in interpreting a composer’s structural outline.

I wish I could have recorded Maestro Cooper’s words to share here, as they were quiet poetic as well as informative. I encourage WV Symphony attendees who have not been arriving early enough for the “Preludes” discussion to do so in the future, it is the appetizer to an evening of fine dining.

Guest pianist Domenico Codispoti joined the symphony for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466,” the first performance of the evening. Like Beethoven, Mozart really needs no introduction. The composer himself took on the role of soloist when this concerto premiered in Vienna in 1785.

Unfortunately, I am unable to comment on the WV Symphony’s performance of the piece as I was seated next to a very noisy and flailing child. Try as I might, it was impossible to concentrate on the orchestra amidst such chaos. While I appreciate any parent introducing their offspring to classical music, it was a sadly jarring distraction for everyone seated quietly around them.

I can say from my pre-concert research Mozart’s three-movement concerto begins with a dark, syncopated rhythm championed by the string section before the piano eventually joins the orchestra. The second movement has an almost song-like melody with G minor operatic embellishments. And the finale begins with what is known as a Mannheim Rocket – a rapidly ascending arpeggio that begins with the piano then spreads to the rest of the orchestra. The drama mood of the piece rises into a jubilant lightness for the conclusion.

Judging from the crowd’s standing ovation, Codispoti and the WV Symphony did not disappoint.

The second half of the evening was devoted to Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1 in D major: Titan.”

Thankfully, a gentleman and his wife a few rows infront of me got up to leave during the intermission and they graciously allowed us to take their seats for the Mahler performance when I explained my child-related predicament. I’m so grateful for the kindness of those strangers, as it was an astounding performance.

Mahler is one of my favorite composers (surpassed only by Chopin) and his first symphony competes with his eighth “Symphony of a Thousand” (I’d love to hear the WVSO tackle that one!) as my favorite of his works. To say I was thrilled to hear the WV Symphony perform the Titan symphony would be a massive understatement.

Like many of Mahler’s other works, the four-movement “Symphony No. 1 in D major: Titan” explores themes of nature, youth, love and death. The title “Titan” comes from Mahler’s original concept of a tone poem based on Jean Paul’s novel and the symphony includes themes from Mahler’s own “Songs of a Wayfarer.”

A contemporary of Brahms and Bruckner, Mahler’s extraordinary compositions are full of subtle intricacies as well as cinematic grandeur. More than any other composer, I think Mahler utilized, emphasized and glorified every instrument in the orchestra. His use of woodwinds and horns is always captivating, particularly in the first movement of this work as the trumpets imitate the sound of a cuckoo.

Mahler’s gradual introduction of each section of the orchestra at the opening of the first movement has the effect of a just dawning sunrise – beginning with the subtle shadows and silhouettes of the horns, then a few random rays of light from the strings before the entire horizon of the stage is filled with the warm, golden tones of the radiant symphony.

The final portions of both the first and second movements were so exhilarating bombastic, I saw several audience members visibly restrain themselves from breaking the unspoken no-applause-between-movements rule.

Maestro Cooper took a long, dramatic pause before beginning the magnificent third movement, which begins with a contrabass-led transformation of “Frère Jacques” as a hunter’s funeral march.

The movement then blossoms into what sounds like a Jewish folk song mixed with a waltz – a superb example of Mahler embracing his Jewish heritage while simultaneously paying homage to the classical composers he revered.

The third movement melts away as the fourth erupts with an unexpected, heart-pounding cymbal crash. The final movement beautifully expands on the themes of the preceding movements before its triumphant end.

The WV Symphony’s breathtaking performance revealed nuances in Mahler’s work that I hadn’t picked up from recordings before. The entire orchestra is to be commended, but I must give extra praise to the trumpeters and other horn players for really bringing Mahler’s complex arrangement to vivid life. The WV Symphony’s rendition of Mahler’s “Titan” was the most exciting, chill-producing live performance of my life.

When I compose a symphony, I compose the world.” – Gustav Mahler

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share. But WVSO’s site had a link to this YouTube video…

WV Symphony Official Site

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 “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