Mahler cycle gets choral kick in finale

James Conlon
Chicago Tribune

By James Von Rhein

For his contribution to the worldwide observance of the centenary of Gustav Mahler's death, James Conlon ended at the beginning. Which is to say the music director wrapped up his Ravinia cycle of the Mahler symphonies Thursday night with a vividly dramatic account of "Das klagende Lied" ("The Song of Lamentation"), the first Mahler score the composer found worthy of preservation.

Mahler's first large-scale composition predates his First Symphony by some eight years and is full of musical intimations of that work, the "Resurrection" Symphony and "Wayfarer" songs. The massive cantata requires a full complement of vocal, choral and orchestral musicians, and this has made it an infrequent visitor to the concert hall.

It was Conlon who introduced "Das klagende Lied" to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra repertory at Ravinia in July 1990, and since then he has been one of its most active proponents. The combined CSO and Chicago Symphony Chorus, along with four solo singers, met Mahler's outsized requirements most capably. Their performance provided a satisfying coda to the Mahler symphony traversal Conlon and the CSO launched at the festival in 2005.

Mahler based his text on a grim fairy tale about an evil brother who kills his virtuous younger sibling to steal the red flower that would enable him to marry a fair queen. But the wedding festivities are disrupted by the appearance of a minstrel playing a flute made from a bone of the slain brother. The flute's strange song reveals the dastardly deed, and the murder is avenged.

Musically "Das klagende Lied" sometimes feels as if it's gilding a very modest lily of a story. But the excesses and longueurs sit alongside pages of quite wonderful choral and solo writing and striking scenic effects in the orchestra, not least the atmospheric evocation of nature that foreshadows the opening of Mahler's Symphony No. 1. These virtues alone justify an occasional hearing.

Conlon rightly included the opening "Waldmarchen" section Mahler omitted when revising the score for publication. His grip on tempo and structure was firm, and he played up the climaxes as if to emphasize the stark power of the young Mahler's orchestral writing. More subtle effects such as the "offstage" wedding celebration could not compete with Ravinia's lusty cicada chorus.

The Duain Wolfe-trained choristers handled their quasi-operatic duties with fervor, declaiming the narrative vigorously. The orchestra was on its mettle as well, responding alertly to the shifting moods and colors of this fascinating score. There were splendid solos from hornist Daniel Gingrich and oboist Eugene Izotov.

Conlon had a sturdy team of soloists in Keri Alkema, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Rodrick Dixon and Brian Mulligan. Both women were excellent. Alkema caught the soaring rapture of the nightingale sequence (soprano and chorus). Semenchuk delivered the minstrel's macabre song with a darkly burnished mezzo and riveting expressive intensity; the impressive Russian singer, who was making her Ravinia debut this summer, deserves to be invited back.

The concert celebrated another major milestone, the 45th anniversary of Itzhak Perlman's Ravinia debut, in 1966. The Israeli violinist was all of 20 that summer, but already the extraordinary gifts that would make him one of the pre-eminent virtuosos of his generation were fully present, for all the world to hear.

Perlman's playing has been somewhat inconsistent in recent years, but one is happy to report he was in fine form for the Beethoven Violin Concerto on Thursday. The inimitably sweet tone, the unaffected grace and enormous breadth of his phrasing, the deft command of the long singing line, the discreet portamento slides — all were pretty much as one remembered from old. The man still has great chops, as my fiddler friends would say.

Conlon and the orchestra paid their colleague the respect of a shapely, attentive accompaniment. Perlman's musical dialogue with principal bassoon David McGill in the Rondo finale was typical of the relaxed spontaneity that informed the whole.