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KSO Steps Up, Meets Challenge

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Sep 29, 2007 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2007

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) presents many challenges:  musical, logistical, physical, even financial, considering the huge forces specified in the score (over 100 players, including the “largest possible” contingent of strings, plus chorus and soloists).
   Happily, the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and music director James R. Cassidy met those challenges Friday night in Greaves Concert Hall at Northern Kentucky University.
   I confess I wondered how this massive symphony would fit in Greaves Hall with its 637 seats.  It did, with even a bonus or two, such as some extremely realistic surround sound in the final movement, when the auditorium and stage doors were opened to let in the sounds of the offstage brass.  The smaller and more intimate venue also allowed Mahler’s occasional chamber music-like textures to be clearly heard.
   The KSO, 85-strong with a full complement of brass, took up most of the stage.  The chorus – 110 singers consisting of the KSO Chorale augmented by members of the Cincinnati Choral Society and Clermont Festival Chorale – only had room to stand.  The problem of having them stand for over an hour waiting for their moment to sing -- which doesn’t happen until the final movement -- was solved by taking an intermission after the third movement, after which the chorus joined the orchestra for the conclusion of the 90-minute work.
   Yet another challenge was how to give the concert the kind of programming pizzazz – what Cassidy calls a “fun” feature – that is a trademark of KSO concerts.  After all, Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is a serious treatise on life and in particular, death, a subject that obsessed Mahler his entire life.
   The solution?  Buttons.  "Ga-ga for Gustav" buttons, worn by the players and chorus and handed out to members of the audience.  They’re kind of classy actually, sporting the composer’s image and perfectly suitable for lapels and adding to collections along with all those 'I love opera" buttons.
   Musically, the KSO performed admirably.  There was spirit, bite, exhilaration and some very fine playing.  What the performance lacked – and should show improvement when the concert repeats at 8 tonight, now that they have a performance under their belt – is the kind of continuity and confidence that repeated performance brings.  This was especially noticeable in the roiling scherzo (third movement), where lines constantly weave and interweave and the thread can be lost.
   There was plenty of affect and emotion, however.  The lower strings dug into the opening sixteenth notes with plenty of grit and projected the work’s important bass lines throughout.  The strings shone in the gentle Andante, an Austrian laendler that was like sunbeams stealing through a faraway memory.  (Cassidy could have made the passionate outburst in the middle more chilling, however.)
   Overall, the brasses made a fine showing.  There were some breaks by individual players now and then, but moments like the "Dies Irae" chorale in the finale were well focused and extremely moving.  Coordination between the KSO and the offstage brass was flawless.
    Mahler’s always characterful woodwinds were represented beautifully by the KOS contingent, which included principal Mark Ostoich (oboe), Susan Magg (flute) and Christine Todey (clarinet).
   The evening’s vocal soloists, mezzo-soprano Brandy Lynn Hawkins and soprano Danielle Elizabeth Walker, were superb.  Hawkins, a graduate student at the University of Kentucky, was as fine as I have heard in the sublime "Urlicht" ("Primal Light") movement.  Walker, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, emerged from the chorus in the finale with warmth and precision, while both soared on the angelic message, "O Glaube" ("O Believe").
   Cassidy, the KSO and chorus drew shivers in the epic final movement, from the singers’ soft, low enunciation of "Aufersteh’n" ("Rise again") to the massive all-stop-pulled conclusion, where Peggy Wolverton filled in on keyboard for the organ.
   Repeat is 8 tonight in Greaves Concert Hall at NKU.

(first published in The Cincinnati Post September 29, 2007)