Saturday, 21 October 2017

Toronto Symphony 2017-2018 # 3: In Honour of Maureen

This week's Toronto Symphony concerts were designed as a tribute to the great Canadian contralto, Maureen Forrester.  Like the previous tribute to Glenn Gould, this programme had a master of ceremonies to give spoken introductions -- this time, renowned singer and broadcaster Ben Heppner.

The programme began with a work specifically commissioned for this occasion.  This was a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, L'Aube ("The Dawn") composed by Howard Shore to poems by Elizabeth Cotnoir.  This 15-minute work created a much larger effect, partly because of the wide thematic scope of the poetry -- effectively a musical portrait of the natural world in which we live, shot through with imagery reflecting the traditions of the First Nations.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who recalls Shore's scores for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit  films that the music is written in a harmonically conservative, post-Romantic idiom.  Larger melodies contrasted or alternated with shorter ostinato figures.  The singer, Susan Platts, had passages where she sang melodically, and others where the text was declaimed in more dramatic fashion, almost operatic.  The five movements were all in moderate to slow tempo.  Beautiful singing and evocative orchestral writing went hand in hand together.  This work drew enthusiastic applause and should certainly be more widely heard.

After the intermission, the larger work was Gustav Mahler's unique masterpiece, Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth").  With this late and monumental creation, Mahler burst the bounds of the traditional song cycle as much as Beethoven had done nearly a century earlier to the symphony with his epic Ninth.  The six movements of Das Lied are a sequence of "songs" for tenor and contralto alternating, but the total work lasts for an hour or more and the final contralto song, Der Abschied ("The Farewell"), takes a half-hour all by itself.

Effectively, Mahler had created a new genre of music -- and recognized that fact himself, when he called Das Lied his "symphony of songs."  Other composers followed his lead in creating song-symphonies (notably Zemlinsky and Shostakovich).

The last time I heard Das Lied von der Erde performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was back in the fall of 1974, and -- no surprise -- Maureen Forrester was the contralto soloist.  It was one of her signature works throughout her long career.  That's 43 years ago, and a long time to wait, but since then I have heard it done twice when the National Ballet of Canada has staged Kenneth MacMillan's ballet Song of the Earth.  In the second staging, the alto soloist was Susan Platts, who also sang the role in this week's concerts.

The tenor role was taken this week by Michael Schade, who has a long and distinguished career on several continents, in both opera and concert work, to his credit.  Schade is famed mainly as a Mozartean singer, and I was curious to see how he would sound with the much heavier orchestral textures of the late-Romantic giant orchestra used by Mahler.

The first song requires the most heroic tone, but contrasting with gentler singing in quieter passages, and Schade nailed the numerous high notes with no trouble -- although I sensed that he was pushing the sound for all he was worth in the louder passages.  He was much more comfortable and at ease with the lighter, chamber-like instrumental textures of the third and fifth songs.  The fifth song, "The Drunkard in Spring," drew his finest singing of the evening, and the playful expression on his face grew into a roguish wink at the final note as he snapped his score shut.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts has a dark, rich colour to her voice which is ideally suited to this work (especially to the second and sixth songs).  She has performed it many times and recorded it twice.  In the fourth song, the central section describing the young men on horseback galloped through at breakneck speed, as it should, and the text began to vanish a little in the hectic rush as she strained to get all the words out -- a common problem for almost all singers.

In the long, final Der Abschied, the problem goes to the opposite extreme: long-breathed, sustained vocal lines have to be sung over quiet bass pedal notes while the rest of the orchestra sits silent.  The last time I heard Platts singing the work, a tight rapid vibrato began to intrude in these passages but this week her voice was calm and smooth, holding those long, slow phrases with total control and serenity.  At the very end, her voice faded right down to the limit of audibility on the final "ewig..." without a hint of a quiver.

Maestro Peter Oundjian once again demonstrated his command of Mahlerian pacing and shaping, especially in the first movement with its regular tempo shifts and in the final movement, where tricky cross-rhythms combine the rippling of the brook with the trilling of bird song.  Balance was also near-ideal, with brass and percussion alike playing with restraint even in the dark climax of the long funeral cortege-interlude in the last song.

The entire concert was a fitting tribute to a great musical artist, created in the best way possible -- by other great artists, giving vivid and gripping performances of great music.