After the last member of the audience filed out of the Brevard Music Center, I was still pondering about what made this particular performance of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde especially appealing. Principal Conductor Keith Lockhart’s musical direction was exemplary, but perhaps no better than that of David Zinman or others whom I have heard conduct this masterpiece of the symphonic/vocal repertoire. Concertmaster William Preucil and the Brevard Music Center Orchestra were playing at their finest, but I don’t believe this gave them an edge over my memories of the New York Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
The soloists were tenor Michael Hendrick and mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips. Mr. Hendrick made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2007; Ms. Phillips was added to the Metropolitan Opera Company in the 2005-2006 season, so we shall certainly hear more of these strong young American opera singers. Both soloists demonstrated dramatic as well as musical talent and brought insight to their roles. However, I have heard equally good soloists at the peak of their careers, so it was not the soloists who made this afternoon so striking.
Because concert hall lighting does not lend itself to reading during a performance, I have never followed the text during a live performance until Sunday, when I followed the German text and Bruce Murray’s excellent English translation. Perhaps it was a careful reading of Hans Bethge’s poetry that distinguished this performance?
Then I realized what made this performance so great; it was alfresco. “The Song of the Earth” was enhanced not only by the interpretation of fine soloists and an excellent orchestra, but also by interaction with nature. The light of the world poured in on us from both sides of the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium, illuminating my program and also coupling the concert space to the changeable natural world.
Ms. Phillips received her first degree in drama and music, and her carefully choreographed body positioning brought a quiet drama to her performance, making the sixth and final song especially touching. Her careful performance left us with no doubt that she was singing of “Der Abschied” (farewell, resignation or valediction), and not “Das Lebewohl” (which has a connotation of a temporary separation). The final repeated “Ewig” was quietly but highly emotional.
Before intermission, the orchestra presented a recent piece by American composer Kevin Puts entitled Two Mountain Scenes. Commissioned in 2007 for the New York Philharmonic to perform at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival, the work conjures up images of the Rocky Mountains. Bare rock faces create trumpet echoes that are depicted in the four-trumpet opening passage. The second movement "Furioso" depicts a mountain storm quite vividly, reminding me of a time that I looked down from 11,000 feet in Colorado at a thunderstorm a mile below me.
The ancient forests of our mountains would swallow up the sound of those trumpets, and we get caught in thunderstorms, not above them. But once one comes to terms with the fact that Puts has written about the young and abrupt Front Range of the Rockies and not the ancient and softer Blue Ridge Mountains, it was a highly successful tone poem about mountain beauty.