The highly anticipated Mahler Symphony No. 4 was performed by the spirited Santa Cruz Symphony under the baton of Maestro Danny Stewart, Music Director and Conductor extraordinaire. To compound this intensity, once again Maestro Stewart conducted this masterpiece and the entire concert from memory! The venue was the Mello Center for the Performing Arts Sunday on October, 7. The fourth movement featured the superb voice of guest artist, Chinese soprano Meigui Zhang. It is quite obvious Stewart’s affinity for Mahler allows him to capture and magically express Mahler’s musical intensity. The performance had a tremendous impact on the audience, especially the ‘Mahlerites’ who filled the Mello with eagerness and appreciation. Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is set for the following season.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was an innovator of experimental sound and introduced several new instruments to the symphony orchestra. Among them were the sleigh bells (Schellen) used to open Symphony No. 4. Sleigh bells used in this work allude to the role of the leitmotiv, appearing in various sections, most significantly in the fourth movement as a hint at recapitulation and a device unifying the formal structure. At various moments sleigh bells are contrasted with the triangle for effective, subtle color and both achieving a soft dynamic. Stewart made certain the overall dynamic levels enabled such subtleties to punctuate and add zest to the special textures designed by Mahler.
Most impressive throughout the concert was the Maestro’s attention and persistence to razor-sharp attacks that achieved significant musical dividends. All four of the orchestral families performed with brilliance. The pizzicati by the double basses were impeccable, the harp in general, and the pizzicati in particular, were quite special, as were the horns, tuba, winds, and of course the magnificent string textures.
Soprano Meigui Zhang was attired in a striking lemon colored gown, sparkling with sequins, and sang with an amazing range that ran the gamut from from the most beautiful balance of soft, textural blending quality up to a rich, full volume of sound. Her German pronunciation was perfect. As an audience aide, the English translation appeared above and to the rear of the orchestra. Mahler employed Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life) from aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s magic horn). A well deserved standing ovation followed this superb performance!
The concert opened with Mikhail Glinka’s (1804-1857) Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla. In the words of Igor Stravinsky, “All music in Russia stems from Glinka.” The overture began with a brisk upbeat introduction, impressive strings, brass and timpani. The story centers on an epic fairy tale by the highly acclaimed Alexander Pushkin, a childhood friend of Glinka. It’s no wonder why composers such as Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich acknowledged Glinka’s musical prowess and influence. The Overture was very well received.
The second work Fidl-Fantazye: A Klezmer Concerto featured the composer and violin virtuoso soloist Noah Bendix-Balgley (1984-). The orchestration was created by Samuel Adler. The work exists in three movements and is a musical kaleidoscope using material from Khosidl, Balkan Dance, Doina, song and Freylekhs. Bendix-Balgley is a world-class violinist and currently the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic.
The work blends the rhythms and timbres of klezmer music and creates a most fascinating musical experience. Gustav Mahler employed a sophisticated setting of klezmer music in his Symphony No.1. The orchestra responded displaying their musicianship throughout the work. One could consider the brass, especially the tuba with its underlying trochee (strong weak) pulse an intrinsic element of the music.
The second movement centered around soul searching, twisting, whirling violin lines where the underlying trochee pattern became elongated by the tuba. The third movement rounded out the ABA form with yet more wonderful violin virtuosity, solid trumpet and clarinet matching virtuosity.
This was a unique, thoroughly enjoyable musical treat that demonstrated the fantastic ability of the Santa Cruz Symphony. BRAVO, well done!