North Carolina Symphony Music Director Grant Llewellyn told the Meymandi Concert Hall audience there was method in his choice of juxtaposing an early symphony by Haydn with one of Mahler’s sprawling but intimate symphonies in all but name, Das Lied from der Erde. He said it showed the evolution of the form from an early Classical structure still bearing Baroque characteristics to the vast expanse of the Romantic period. The core classical repertory, Haydn and Mozart, is the best way to refine the musicianship and playing of an orchestra and Llewellyn has shown more interest in this than his predecessors. He preceded the performance of each work with comments from the stage and spoke at greater length at the informal “Meet the Artists” held at the front of the stage after the concert.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) entered the service of Prince Paul Anton Esterházy of Hungary in 1761. The composer eventually was responsible for creating music for the Prince’s superb private orchestra ranging from chamber music through orchestral music, ballets, and operas. Being ensconced in the Prince’s Palace in the country forced Haydn to be “original” and experimental. He is often called the father of both the string quartet and the symphony. Llewellyn has programmed three of Haydn’s symphonies that portray the times of day in concerts given across the state. Symphony No. 6 in C is nicknamed “Le Matin” (The Morning) while Symphony No. 8 in D is called “Le Soir” (The Evening). Symphony No. 7 in C, “Le Midi” (Noon), performed at this concert has the four-movement structure Haydn established but retains Baroque concerto grosso trappings by having a ripieno, a small group of soloists, set against the concertino or the fuller orchestra.

The ripieno consisted of concertmaster Brian Reagin, acting principal second violinist Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky, principal cellist Bonnie Thron, and principal double bass Leonid Finkelshteyn. There was a lively give-and-take between these players along with some superbly executed woodwind playing. Llewellyn said he had encouraged the players to improvise but that the delightful paired cadenza played by Reagin and Thron had been precisely written out by Haydn. The composer richly deserves his reputation for good humor and jokes of which Finkelshteyn’s robust double bass solo was an excellent example! Llewellyn’s choices of dynamics, phrasing, and tempos did full justice to the composer.

The example of Beethoven’s nine symphonies overshadowed composers who came after him. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) had been haunted by death and self-imposed guilt ever since the tragic death of his beloved younger brother Ernest in childhood. Only six of Mahler’s twelve siblings survived childhood. Twenty-first century music lovers can never fully appreciate the effects of large families and high child death rates of the pre-antibiotics and vaccine era. Having finished his Eighth Symphony, Mahler sought to cheat fate by not calling his next massive setting for vocalists and orchestra a symphony but rather Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) (1908) instead. Fate had struck Mahler with three blows in the summer of 1907: he quit after a turbulent decade as director of the highly politicized Vienna Opera, he grieved for the sudden death of his favorite four-year old daughter, Maria, from scarlet fever and diphtheria, and he had received a hopeless diagnosis of heart disease. Mahler was masterful at selecting poetry and setting it to music. He selected the texts for Song of the Earth from a German translation of a French translation of a selection of seven poems by three Chinese Tang dynasty poets, Li Bai, Mong Hao-Ran, and Wang Wei. The work consists of six settings alternating for tenor and a lower voice, usually a mezzo-soprano or contralto, and full orchestra. Baritones occasionally are used instead of a woman soloist. Two poems are used for the half-hour long final song, “Der Abschied” (“Farewell”). While there are rousing sections for the full orchestra unleashed, most often the orchestra is reined in to a chamber music scale. Mahler did not live to conduct it, it having been premiered by his protégé Bruno Walter. Ever the practical conductor as well as a reviser of scores, I suspect Mahler would have further tinkered with portions that drown out all but the most robust tenors.

Llewellyn had chosen a superb pair of soloists. High Point native and International opera star Anthony Dean Griffey is a lyric tenor but has an extra heft to his voice allowing his lines to surf over most of the louder orchestra sections. His diction was excellent and his tonal palette was refined, nicely coloring the most emotional lines. The ringing quality of his voice was most welcome in the opening “Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde” (“Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery”). He has a great lieder singer’s skill for carefully bringing out word meaning. This was Griffey’s second outing with Song of the Earth in this state, having closed the 2012 Eastern Music Festival season with it. Susan Platts was born in Britain and raised in Canada. While she lists herself as a mezzo-soprano, her very firmly supported lower range gives her a deeper, richer contralto quality. Her care for text was as great as Griffey’s and her soul-searching delivery of the introspective 30 minute sixth “Das Abschied” (“Farewell”) section was transfixing to the last fading “Ewig” (For ever and ever).

There were many important instrumental solos scattered throughout the lighter scaled sections. Principal oboist Melanie Wilsden was superb throughout the second movement which included substantial contributions from Concertmaster Reagin and principal cellist Thron. Woodwinds were excellent in the third and fourth movements which also had fine solos from principal flutist Anne Whaley Laney. The horn section was glorious throughout the work and the rest of the brass was refined with splendid sounds from the trumpets and trombones. The pair of harps contributed a great deal. Llewellyn balanced and paced Song of the Earth most effectively.

I believe this was the third outing for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde by the North Carolina Symphony during the last three decades. I recall John Gosling led performances with Beverly Wolff. However both conductors had mere mortal tenors who were too often drowned. Music lovers who only know Song of the Earth from carefully mic’d recordings will usually be disappointed by how tenors usually fair in the concert hall. Meymandi music lovers heard an exceptional case with Griffey’s extra vocal strength.