With a sense of renewal mixed with sorrow, the Kansas City Symphony performed Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” [The Song of the Earth] in Helzberg Hall on Friday, conducted by music director Michael Stern.
This monumental work, for large orchestra and two vocal soloists, exhibited a timeless beauty. Mahler, writing as cathartic response to his life-crises, used Chinese poetry to explore philosophic responses to the inevitabilities of life — death, sorrow, loneliness — and nature’s healing influence while remaining ultimately untouched by human suffering.
The program also included the two existing movements of Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, his “Unfinished” symphony. In both cases, the works premiered posthumously.
The symphony, which Stern conducted sans score, opened with ominous rumblings in the low strings and excellent clarinet solo, the cellos presenting the work’s familiar melody, underscored in a stately Viennese fashion. These segments were interrupted with a sudden thunderous moment, Schubert proceeding to link and extrapolate these elements with attuned dramatic sense. The second movement contrasted fragile transitions and solo statements in oboe and clarinet with a broad ensemble voice, punctuated by trumpet and finished off with a lovely wind choir moment, Stern indicating a thoughtfully sustained release.
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In “Das Lied,” alto Michelle DeYoung and tenor Joseph Kaiser performed with operatic presence imbued with emotive color. After the horns’ meaty and defiant opening call, Kaiser gave a heroic salvo in “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery” as the orchestra, in carefully constructed chaos, unfurled its tremendous force, with bells up clarinets and a fine clear tone from trumpet. Unfortunately, soloists (especially vocalists) are typically buried whenever the orchestra exerts in volume. This effect may be lessened directly in front, through the central orchestra, parterre and mezzanine, but important moments were lost to much of the audience, no matter the soloists’ power. Nevertheless, Kaiser lent exceptional gravitas to the part, especially the line “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod!” [Dark is life, is death!]
Mahler used the orchestra to paint the text’s images, invoking nature through birdsong effects, Eastern images with pentatonic passages and emblematic timbres, and a still and timeless universality. DeYoung, against the sobbing sequence in the orchestra, spun a long, connected line of regret and consolation in “The Lonely One in Autumn.” Kaiser had a lighter, less stentorian approach to the lively “Youth,” changing delivery in response to the imagery of a pond’s reflection, smooth and untouchable. Mahler interrupted the organic push and pull of the regal vocal line in “Beauty” with a rush of ringing bells, brass, and percussion, DeYoung ferociously engaging the lyrics amidst these forces.
Kaiser’s energetic final song, “The Drunkard in Spring,” offered the work its small moment of humor, delivered with a twinkle, his voice ringing out with the forced joviality of the song.
The final movement, a magnificent “The Farewell,” puzzled together the motifs heard in the previous songs for an expansive conclusion, and featured not only DeYoung, but gorgeous solo moments from the principals, too, DeYoung merging wonderfully with the orchestra on the elided phrases. Alternately somber and pleading or robust and dramatic, the swelling dynamics and layered motifs created an endlessly textured and intriguing performance. DeYoung’s delicate placement of the final statements of “ewig” [forever] and Sterns’ careful drawing out of the orchestral response made for a breathless, contemplative fade to twilight.
First violinist Susan Goldenberg fainted during Friday’s performance. Symphony officials said she recovered quickly and is expected to be fine. Kudos to the orchestra members and audience members who swiftly came to her aid during the concert, and to the performers for retaining composure in the face of unsure circumstances.