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

WV Symphony Orchestra: La Boheme

The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra performed The Rome H. & Bessie Walker Opera Theater production of La bohème at The Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences in Charleston, WV on May 16th, and I had the privilege of attending.

I consider myself a fan of opera music, but I had never been to an actual opera before. So I was initially disappointed to learn this would only be a semi-staged production. In the program for the event, conductor Grant Cooper courteously explained the reason behind the limited production – namely the financial strain a full opera would have imposed on the symphony during this economic downturn.

Fortunately, the lack of costuming and set design did not detract from the power of the opera at all. Rather, the absence of visual distractions seemed to emphasis the beauty of the music and the power of the singers’ voices. And the WV Symphony’s impeccable instrumentation provided the perfect accompaniment for the singers without taking away from the action on stage.

I tried to familiarize myself with the history of Giacomo Puccini’s four-act opera in preparation for the performance. The libretto of La bohème is partially based on the novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, but Puccini apparently changed much of the plot for his opera. Though the title, setting, and entire basis for the opera were French, the opera itself is sung in Italian.

La bohème tells the story of a group of poor artists living in 19th century Paris, and centers on the relationship between poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimì. Their turbulent love is only part of the story, as it is revealed that Mimì has tuberculosis. Those of younger generations are probably most familiar with the characters and plot of La bohème as the basis for the musical (and subsequent movie) Rent.

La bohème‘s Mimì is of course Rent‘s Mimì, and poet Rodolfo corresponds with musician Roger. The painter Marcello in La bohème was split into the two characters of Mark and Joanne (who is also partially based on La bohème‘s state councilor Alcindoro) in Rent. La bohème‘s seductive singer Musetta is Rent‘s Maureen, musician Schaunard became Angel, philosopher Colline is Tom Collins, and landlord Benoît is Benny. Even the songs of Rent were born from scenes in La bohème – such as the candlelit meeting of Mimì and Rodolfo that obviously inspired “Light My Candle”.

I include these parallels between Rent and La bohème in hopes of drawing younger fans to the opera. It seems most people I know turn up their nose at the mere mention of “opera”, because they think it’s boring or they believe it’s beyond their comprehension. I must admit that learning the similarities between Rent and La bohème provided cliff notes for me, which enabled me to easily follow along with the opera even though I don’t speak Italian (though the Symphony was kind enough to project English subtitles above the stage). And the Symphony’s modernization of the costumes and setting of La bohème made it seem even more like its Broadway counterpart.

Jeffrey Springer was the perfect choice for Rodolfo. His deep and robust voice reminded me of John McCormack or Placido Domingo, which are not comparisons easily found these days. Jeffrey Madison as Marcello, Steven Stull as Shaunard, and John Shuffle as Colline also gave competent performances, and all of the male singers revealed their comedic talents in the opening scene of the final act.

Charleston’s own Roger Lucas portrayed the toy vendor Parpignol, while the crowds in The Latin Quarter marketplace and Café Momus were composed of singers from the Appalachian Children’s Chorus and WV Symphony Chorus. Tim Jerome revived his role as Benoît, who he played in director Baz Luhrmann‘s production of La bohème. Jerome has also appeared in several films, including Cradle Will Rock, Everyone Says I Love You, and SpiderMan 2.

Yet it was unquestionably the female leads who owned the stage. Vicki Fingalson played a very vivid Musetta with a confident strut, glittering hot pink dress (and matching stilettos), and gravity-defying trills.

Barbara Shirvis’ magnificently understated performance as Mimi held the audience captive throughout the entire evening, particularly her aria “Mi chiamano Mimì” and her stunning duet with Springer of “O soave faciulla”. Her powerful, pristine, and utterly pitch perfect voice filled the auditorium and soared from floor to rafter without even a hint of shrillness.

Shirvis was the subject of several gushing conversations I overheard during intermission. And she immersed herself so deeply into her character that I heard several sniffles in the audience during Mimi’s final scene. I was shocked to read in the program that this was her debut performance as Mimi, because she seemed as comfortable in the character’s skin as if she’d been inhabiting her for years.

As for the venue…The Clay Center‘s 1,883 seat Maier Foundation Performance Hall may be small compared to other auditoriums in the city, but the vertical design is perfect for an opera. Because the structure of the auditorium puts height ahead of width, every seat has a good view of the stage and the acoustics are superb.

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited during the actual performance, but I took pictures of the empty auditorium during the orchestra’s rehearsal before the program. And I found the following public domain (a.k.a. free and legal) recording of Puccini himself singing “Che gelida manina” from La boheme at Archive.org:

Giacomo Puccini – Che gelida manina (mp4) *

*public domain recording hosted by Archive.org