NTSO: Kamu’s Mahler

featuring tenor Stephen Gould and mezzo soprano Dana Beth Miller under Okko Kamu

The list of Mahler symphonies left to see live is narrowing, and tonight’s program showcased the two (one and a half? quarter?) pieces of Mahler’s that I’m likely least familiar with. First on the program, in which there was no intermission, was Mahler’s Blumine, the only surviving movement of a set of incidental music that was otherwise lost. It got jammed into the first symphony as the second movement (between the current first and second movements) as a little serenade, featuring trumpet and some other solo bits. It was wisely removed from the symphony, I think, and is rarely performed or recorded, at least relative to everything else he wrote.

But then, just one piece on the program, even if it is a sprawling late Mahler work, seems a bit sparse, so we got Blumine before the magnificent and weighty Das Lied von der Erde. And again, no intermission. We’re not in Taipei, by the way, so it was a high speed train ride (first in the wrong direction…) for an hour and some fighting of traffic to get to the concert hall on time, with no chance for dinner. It was rainy, and we were on a later train than planned. But my fellow concertgoer and I chatted the entire way down (and back) and walked into the hall about 10 mins before go time.

The NTSO’s tuning ceremony seemed a bit odd but Mr. Kamu himself walked out and nonchalantly gave the downbeat for Blumine, a sweet movement, but kind of an oddball thing as a standalone, and by far one of Mahler’s least memorable efforts. But it was the first sound I’d ever heard come from the stage of 中興堂 in Taichung, and the acoustics weren’t as bad as I had feared. Blumine played for seven-ish minutes, and the NTSO gave a warm, limber, light sound to this vestige of Mahler’s first symphony (more on that in 24 hours).

After a small bit of shuffling, addition of more hands on deck and light-dimming, Kamu on the podium all the while, our voices join the orchestra, Gould and Miller smiling politely before presenting us with one of the least feel-good works of Mahler’s career, which is saying something.

Orchestral music is one thing, but how would voices carry? Well, Gould seems to be of great stature, and his voice positively barreled out for Das Trinklied, and I said to myself “Self, this is a fantastic sign for what we’re about to enjoy.” Glowing hot horns called out from their corner of the stage, bringing the orchestra to life, and we were under way.

The impression of hearing Das Lied in performance (or recording) is that the first five movements are a montage, a smattering of warm-ups in preparation for the big, real main course, Der Abschied. The first five movements present all sorts of interesting ideas, and there’s so much to be said about the contrast in them, the meditations on life, youth, the human experience, and on Mahler’s choice of text, his being ‘three times a stranger’ and using Chinese poetry translated (eventually) into German and being set for such a serious context.

Gould sang the odd-numbered movements like he was writing the poetry right then and there. It was natural, spontaneous, effortless, and at times he roared through the whole orchestra, a true heldentenor. He was just stunning. One of the contrasts in the work, though, is this alternating between the two voices, so second to rise was Miller, and while her voice is bronzy and full-bodied and almost effortlessly propulsive, I felt in her two appearance before Das Abschied that if Gould seemed to be inventing the words then and there, that Miller was being given them through an earpiece, trying to convince us of their authenticity. There was a certain delicacy I felt was missing, a spontaneity or tenderness for the performance that seemed to be a bit lost in her first two songs.

But let me just tell you.

Dana Beth Miller singing Der Abschied is nothing short of spellbinding. It was as if there was a whole new persona on stage. That’s largely due to the nature of the text, but it was suddenly as if she sucked the light out of the room and replaced it with her voice, like she was letting out her being and casting a solemn, grave, resolved farewell to the entire world, and I half expected her to be enveloped in a thick cloud of grey smoke and disappear. Everything from her diction and the way the words at times seemed to writhe out of her mouth, her piercing eyes, the delicacy with which the orchestra played the more sensitive passages, everything from the visceral growls from low woodwinds to the trills and Asian-inclined flowery passages of the flute or horn, all worked right under the spell her voice was casting. Gould bowled us over with his three songs, as if they were from his very own notebook, but Das Abschied is what makes this piece soul-suckingly, heart-crushingly powerful, and Miller and the NTSO under Kamu’s baton got it right. (I would love to see Gould in any number of Wagner roles. He couldn’t help but give a few especially lively gestures this evening; this is his music.)

Between each of the movements was presented a very brief (but sometimes maybe still not brief enough) visual of one Chinese calligraphy artist, 林隆達, featuring what I assume (without asking) was the original Chinese poetry from which the content of Das Lied is derived, and printings of which decorated the backdrop of the hall as well as the program for the evening.

I didn’t realize until Kamu was off the podium standing next to Gould and Miller that he is a very small human. On the platform, he wielded his baton with poise, conducting with seeming ease the movement that even the composer, a respected conductor himself, asked a colleague how to conduct. It was a wonderful evening, or as wonderful as music of such gravity can be, and worth the trip. Keep on the lookout for yet another concert review this weekend, with some quite interesting relation to this evening’s program. How exciting!

 

… ewig … ewig… 

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