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May Fest Offers Taste of Mahler

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: May 26, 2001 - 9:02:35 PM in archives

(first published in The Cincinnati Symphony May 26, 2001)

The May Festival got a big taste of Mahler Friday night at Music Hall.

Mahler's Third Symphony is six movements and over one-and-a-half hours long, one of the longest symphonies ever written, and a formidable musical repast for anyone.

May Festival music director James Conlon, conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, laid it out so masterfully, however, that no one in the crowd of 2,514 (down a bit from last weekend) seemed challenged. In fact, they rose and applauded enthusiastically at the end.

"All nature is voiced therein," wrote Mahler of the work, and, in musical terms, it's hard to find anything he left out. The orchestra is huge - quadruple winds, eight horns, four trumpets, four trombones, two harps and lots of percussion. There are also women's and children's choirs and a mezzo-soprano soloist, these roles filled with distinction Friday night by the women of the May Festival Chorus, the Children's Choir of Greater Cincinnati andmezzo-soprano Florence Quivar.

Mahler meant what he said when he said "all nature." The symphony is a giant paean to creation, culminating in a hymn to transcendence, which Mahler equates to divine love. The gigantic first movement (approaching 40 minutes) celebrates the emergence of life through the metaphor of summer overcoming winter. The movement bristles with marches: thundering brasses, snare drums rattling, piccolos a la "The Stars and Stripes Forever." And struggle is clearly evident in the raucous clarinets and passages reminiscent of children taunting each other. But amid it all you can imagine fiddleheads unfurling, moths breaking out of their cocoons and at the end, a riot of sound like a nature film on fast forward.

Kudos to principal trombonist Cristian Ganicenco for his marvelous solos.

The remaining movements - Mahler called them a series of miniatures after the opening fresco - trace the arrival of flowers, animals and then man. The Tempo di Menuetto, "What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me," was sweetly romantic with its lilting landler theme (a precursor of the waltz). Principal oboist Richard Johnson and concertmaster Timothy Lees grace it elegantly with their gentle, nuanced solos. The Scherzando ("What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me") opened with scurrying woodwinds, then birdcalls that became quite a chorus, the proceedings interrupted by boisterous downward scales in the full orchestra. Principal trumpeter Philip Collins, performing offstage in the foyer (which lent a wonderful resonance) sounded the call of homo sapiens in the famous "posthorn" solo (the horn used on old-fashioned mail coaches). It was a dreamy moment, but the spell was broken momentarily by a chilling minor chord (man's advent is not without complication), before the crashing, upbeat end.

Ms. Quivar tailored her voice exquisitely to Nietzche's reflection on the human condition in the Misterioso, veiled and soft at first, then opening up to match the text. In the penultimate movement, she joined the choruses in a song of the angels, the children - prepared expertly by director Robyn Lana - echoing percussionist Richard Jensen's bells with their own ringing "bimm, bamm's."

The final movement was Conlon's big challenge, a lengthy Adagio that wends its way slowly toward its triumphant conclusion. The strings were lustrous here, the tone serious but tender. The festival concludes at 8 tonight with a Russian-themed concert, featuring Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture with chorus.