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Concert Review/ Agnes Grossman & Roxana Constantinescu & Gordon Gietz

img  Tobias Fischer

Glenn Guhr: Red Sea (a Song of the Earth) (world premiere)
Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (chamber version of A. Schoenberg/W. Reihn)
Roxana Constantinescu, mezzo-soprano
Gordon Gietz, tenor
Toronto Summer Music Festival Ensemble
Agnes Grossman, conductor

Drawing a close to this year’s Mahler centenary celebration at the Toronto Summer Music Festival, Canadian-Viennese conductor Agnes Grossmann takes up the baton for one last time in her final capacity serving as Artistic Director/Conductor of the TSMF. A love for music and a love for poetry have been propelling forces that drive Mahler in his creative musical outputs. Following in Mahler’s footsteps, Maestra Grossmann attests to this tradition; thus, she has designed a concert with compositions that join these two elements. The unifying theme that bridges these two– of music and of poetry – is embodied most appropriately in the title of tonight’s programme – Song of the Earth.

     The TSMF has commissioned Canadian composer Glenn Buhr on a composition that reflects on this theme. The result, Red Sea (a Song of the Earth), is a single-movement song-cycle written for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble. It is a piece totaling ~20mins in length in which Buhr explains in the programme as his “direct reaction to the libretto written for me by Margaret Sweatman [Canadian author, poet and Buhr’s wife].” The piece is also partly influenced by Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde - itself based on poems by the Chinese poet, Li Tai-po. Like their predecessors, Buhr-Sweatman joins the additive forces of music and text to illustrate the various faces of nature (as in the second Song, White Sea Birds) and the impact of humankind on nature (as in the third song, Wilderness of Mirrors). But unlike their predecessors, who focus primarily on death, and the love and beauty of nature, Buhr’s work takes a step forward by using clashing intervals, by interchanging melodic lines of sweeping tension (illustrated by mezzo-soprano), and by pairing a contrast of instruments to emphasize the unsettling feeling and an overall crisis present on our planet Earth. Although the work does not evoke the sweet intoxication and lush melodic lines as evidently as those present in Mahler’s, the level of emotional tension evoked by the Romanian mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu and the instrumentalists of the TSMF ensemble under Maestra Grossmann is musically engaging and thematically uplifting. This is perhaps further aided by Ms. Constantinescu’s diligent grasp on the Buhr’s score for the mezzo-soprano and her likewise apt and free interpretation capturing the very essence behind Sweatman’s original libretto. One will be pleased to learn that the performance has been recorded by CBC Radio.

     Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is arguably the work that unifies the two contrasting facets in Mahler’s art as a composer: on one hand, Mahler the Symphonist, and the other, Mahler the Poet. In 1908, Mahler himself describes this symphony in disguised form as being “the most personal composition I have created thus far” – an understandable reaction as he increasingly becomes aware of his own mortality. As a composer of the lied, Mahler has gifts to evoke the myriad of imageries behind the texts of Klopstock, Leander, Rückert, among others, to such harmony and creative forces under his ingenious instrumentation. His music ultimately becomes his vehicle of powerful evocation in human expressions and a probe into his own personal psyche. Das Lied certainly reigns in the penultimate in its form - six movements of independent songs based on ancient Chinese texts of vast instrumentation, in which Mahler brings out the visions of earthly beauty and transcendence expressed in these verses. In order to offer musicians a greater ease in performing this work on a smaller scale, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern have begun a version in 1921 for string quintet, percussion and wind quintet, unfortunately that is left incomplete. In 1980, musicologist Rainer Riehn completes this chamber version, and has since been considered by many as a just reduction of the original.

     Maestra Grossmann has selected this Schoenberg-Riehn chamber version to showcase the breadth of musicians encompassing the TSMF ensemble, but more importantly, the vocal versatilities of her two soloists: Ms. Constantinescu, who sings the even-numbered songs and the odd ones from Canadian-tenor, Gordon Gietz. Mr. Gietz opens the first song, Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (Drinking Song of the Misery of the Earth) with attempts to a rumbustious opening. However, it does not take long for one to sense that maintaining clear articulation continues to challenge Gietz’s vocal projection. This movement contains one of the toughest passages for the tenor voice, particularly in the refrain “Dark is life, Dark is Death” that is pitched a semitone higher on each successive reappearance. The tenor must stretch the top of his vocal range to match the full capacity of his accompanying musicians. In this reduced chamber version, Gietz is benefited in part without having to match the tumult of a full orchestra. But what seems missing is an inner communion one may have wanted between music and the poetry in the refrain – this feeling of how the original poem joins drunken exaltation with deep sadness. His singing seems more up to that task in Von der Jugend (of Youth) and then in Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunk in Springtime), where he demonstrates greater command with his voice, showing the versatility and confidence to execute the variety of vocal timbre and weighted expressions in the Mahler songs.

     In her second appearance for this evening, Ms. Constantinescu radiates in her role with introspection and emotional luminosity. She brings sensitivity in the text by accentuating on the character of the songs differently, by mixing a variety of accents and rhythmical gestures to align with the poems. Altogether, her voice matches comfortably in both its colour and lustre with the accompanying TSMF ensemble musicians. In both Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn) and Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty), she sings with ebb and fluidity that is necessary to attune with the melodic transitions. One of the highlights is Constantinescu’s adeptness to rise and fall with ease in her vocal breath to illustrate the emotional details accompanying the musical line. It is in Der Abschied (The Farewell) that her voice soars to the fullest of character; it matches the challenges of a “floating” tempo as Mahler instructs on his performers. It has been argued that this final song is particularly difficult not only for the singer, but extremely challenging to conduct as it is Mahler’s own directions to conduct this song without regards to the tempo (as if bar-lines were non-existent). It is essentially a fantasia – both for the soloist and the musicians. In this reduced chamber version, this sense of disembodiment remains ever so evident. Under Maestra Grossmann’s direction, the nostalgia and slow tempo in the final moment is uplifted into a feeling of transcendence, as Ms. Constantinescu sings and echoes the words “eternally … eternally … eternally.”

     Maestra Grossmann has brought many happy memories to audiences in Canada and from around the world. This concert has certainly mark an important chapter in her ongoing musical career. Classical music in the Toronto summer weeks in the past 6 years has been especially blessed under her directorship, and it is with sadness that she will part TSMF after much of her illustrious efforts to successfully turn TSMF into the next Canadian sensation.

By: Patrick P.L. Lam

Picture by Dr. Peter Alberti.

Homepage: Agnes Grossman
Homepage: Gordon Gietz
Homepage: Toronto Summer Music Festival

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