Hrůša explores the end of life through Adams and Mahler

Cleveland Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša, conductor
Joélle Harvey, soprano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director
Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus
Ann Usher, director
Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus
Daniel Singer, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 14, 2019

Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major

Following up on last week’s juxtaposition of Shostakovich and Beethoven, Jakub Hrůša offered a second week of incisive contrasts in Adams and Mahler. Both works were concerned in some fashion with the end of life, though of vastly different orientations. Written as a tombeau for the victims of 9/11, Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls received its belated Cleveland premiere this week. Conceived almost immediately in the wake of the events memorialized, the work was first performed in New York in September 2002, and earned Adams the Pulitzer Prize for Music the following year.

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Jakub Hrůša and Cleveland Orchestra and choruses perform On the Transmigration of Souls. Photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

In addition to large orchestra, chorus, and children’s chorus, the work makes extensive use of pre-recorded electronica, with an elaborate array of speakers wrapping the hall in surround sound. Ambient sounds of the city opened the piece, initially sounding as business as usual, but quickly giving way to sirens and boy’s repeated incantation of “missing.” The choir entered, ethereal and wordless, and strident trumpet solo was heard from an offstage Michael Sachs. It’s a daunting task to adequately capture the emotions of this subject matter in music, and to that end, Adams took pains to eschew any conventional notions of a requiem, instead producing a work with almost no narrative structure, allowing for a multitude of individual responses to its entrancing and mournful solemnity.

Particularly poignant were the recordings of brief tributes to certain victims – one who was described as having “a voice like an angel”: and such a voice we were to hear in the subsequent Mahler. About two-thirds of the way in came a caustic climax, and one could viscerally feel the weight of the events of that day. I would suggest another parallel to Mahler in that it follows a similar arc to the first movement of the Tenth Symphony, spanning roughly the same length, and of autumnal feeling until the shattering crest at about the same point. The music waned, especially doleful as names were read, and matters faded once again into the fabric of the cityscape.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony has been called the most Viennese of his symphonies, following a more traditional four movement structure and of modest proportions in length and orchestration (by Mahler’s standards, at least). It’s a piece thus particularly well-suited to this orchestra, noted for their classical precision and balance as well as a strong Mahler tradition – and documented in a noted recording of this symphony with Pierre Boulez. The sleigh bells that opened made for a fantastical, almost fairy-tale like atmosphere, countered by graceful strings. The apparent naïveté ran only surface-deep, however, with Hrůša probing beyond its appealing veneer. The winds were in fine form, especially principal flute Joshua Smith, bright and bucolic, and the trumpets hinted at what would become the iconic opening of the Fifth. The more impassioned sections could have benefited from greater clarity, but there was a wonderful moment of serenity before the movement’s boisterous end.

Announced by the horns, the second movement was rooted in the ländler, but as through a distorted lens. Concertmaster Peter Otto coarsely played a detuned violin, emulating a folksy fiddle, and Daniel McKelway’s contributions on the clarinet were shrill yet stylish. The ensuing Ruhevoll opened in a divine simplicity, the strings of the orchestra playing with the intimacy of a quartet. In his pre-concert lecture, Bryan Gilliam keenly noted that Mahler created a nostalgia for a world that never was. The brass were particularly warm in the climactic opening of heaven’s gates, with the strings reaching higher and higher, grounded by the angelic harp. A silky clarinet marked the finale, introducing soprano Joélle Harvey, who previously sang Mahler with this orchestra in last season’s performance of the Second. Her limpid and fluid voice offered the Wunderhorn setting much character, closing each stanza with a profundity that gave weight and authenticity to this child’s depiction of heaven.

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Joélle Harvey in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony

Halls leads Cleveland Orchestra in moving Mozart mass

Cleveland Orchestra
Matthew Halls, conductor

Joélle Harvey, soprano
Krisztina Szabo, mezzo-soprano
Paul Appleby, tenor
Michael Sumuel, bass-baritone
Blossom Festival Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
August 2, 2019

Mozart: Mass in C minor, K427, Great

The Blossom Festival Chorus had one chance to shine during the Summers@Severance series this year, and they more than made it count in Friday’s performance of Mozart’s Mass in C minor. Mozart perplexingly never completed the Mass (and unlike the case of the also incomplete Requiem, he lived for nearly another decade), yet even its fragmentary state, it remains an undisputed masterwork. Several attempts have been made to complete the work, but conductor Matthew Halls opted for the extant torso in a performing edition by Helmut Eder.

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Matthew Halls, photo credit Jon Christopher Meyers © Oregon Bach Festival

A weighty pathos, buttressing the epithet Great, was to be had from the onset of the Kyrie. The force of the chorus was quickly introduced, countered by the delicate beauty of soprano Joélle Harvey’s voice (in a passage I cannot dissociate from a memorable scene in Amadeus). A powerful response from the chorus was elicited. Tenor Paul Appleby introduced the Gloria unaccompanied as if to announce the commanding fugue, a rather glorious affair bearing a more than passing resemblance to Handel’s Hallelujah chorus.

Mozart wrote the work with his soprano wife Constanze in mind, and consequently there exists a bounty of wondrous writing for the two soprano soloists – and Krisztina Szabo’s flexible instrument was up to the vocal acrobatics in the “Laudamus te”. Crisp dotted rhythms during “Qui tollis” were emblematic of Halls’ tight direction, and there the choral passages were of a tragic beauty that foreshadowed the Requiem. The closing “Cum Sancto Spiritu” beamed in its contrapuntal splendors, anchored by an imposing bass line in the trombone.

The booming bass-baritone of Michael Sumuel opened the Credo just as Appleby did in the Gloria. “Et incarnatus est” was a highlight in its delicate orchestrations, with fine contributions from the principal winds, strings, organ, and Harvey’s limpid vocals. An ebullient and brassy Sanctus led to the prematurely closing Benedictus, the only time vocal quartet were scored together – one only wished there were more opportunities for the ensemble to explore their obvious chemistry.

Welser-Möst concludes autumn residency with a powerhouse Mahler 2

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Joélle Harvey, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 5, 2018

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection

There’s no question about it: The Cleveland Orchestra’s 101st season has gotten off to a stellar start, with the weekend seeing the last of four diverse and weighty programs led by Welser-Möst before he leaves for engagements elsewhere, not to return until January’s performances of Ariadne auf Naxos. The program in question was devoted to Mahler, familiar territory for these forces, namely the imposing and ultimately glorious Second Symphony – a work not performed on this stage since 2007.

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Welser-Möst, Wong, Harvey, and Cooke (l-r) with Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus

A funeral march is integral to virtually all of Mahler’s symphonies, and the Second in fact begins with one – and a formidable one at that. Nervous tremolos opened, leading inexorably down to the grave in this ferocious outpouring, though interspersed with moments of repose in what made for starkly garish contrasts, with the latter particularly encouraged by the plaintive oboe of Frank Rosenwein. Tempos were brisk – perhaps a bit too much so for my taste – but the yield was music of arresting power, never to be sentimentalized. A stirring brass chorale suggested the venerable Dies irae, and the movement concluded in desolation via a final downward gesture, a fate sounding all but inescapable.

But of course Mahler’s arduous journey doesn’t end there, with the following Andante moderato a folksy foil, as if the struggles immediately preceding had been entirely forgotten in this carefree ländler. A much less tightly-wound tempo achieved a simple, rustic peace, with some playful counterpoint between the strings and winds, leading towards a more animated central section. The main theme returned in a gentle pizzicato, unimpeachably good-natured. A thud in the timpani marked the third movement, with sinuous sixteenths testing the dexterity of the orchestra – a challenge easily surmounted, though again I found the tempo choice a tad rushed. This was the first of two nods to Mahler’s own Wunderhorn songs, here a purely instrumental expansion of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt”, and not entirely a blithe affair as matters erupted into a primal scream.

In another moment of extreme contrast, a sudden shift to light and the divine was achieved in “Urlicht” (another Wunderhorn text), with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s rich introspection a voice from another world. The brass chorales were heavenly, and though only a few minutes in duration, this movement was easily the emotional heart of the entire work. The text concludes with longing for “das ewig selig Leben” – in his pre-concert lecture, Rabbi Roger Klein suggested that Mahler knew that “Urlicht” alone was inadequate to achieve these lofty ambitions, hence necessitating the massive finale, a grueling undertaking.

The calm of “Urlicht” was immediately uprooted with fury unrelenting. An offstage brass added a spatial dimension to the score’s rich detailing (some flubbed notes notwithstanding), and the resurrection motif was unassumingly introduced in the trombones and trumpets. Climaxes were of shattering power, although a more intimate moment saw the fluttering flute of Joshua Smith joined by delicate touches of piccolo. The chorus entered as a unified whisper, building to great force in due course. Joélle Harvey offered an angelic soprano, naturally blending with Cooke, and the organ added even more magnificence to work’s stunningly spectacular conclusion, surely representing the pinnacle of human triumph.