Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Heard in Heaven

Heard in Heaven

By Tom Wachunas

Handel, Mahler: Christine Brandes (soprano), Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor)

Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, USA, 05.12.2010 (TW)

George Frideric Handel: Overture to Theodora (1749), “Angels Bright and Fair” from Theodora, “Let the Bright Seraphim” from Samson (1741)
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G Major (1901)

“Music of the Angels” was the theme of the December 5 concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra. The program could have just as well been named “Music To the Angels.” In any case, there were many moments throughout the evening when Umstattd Hall reverberated with decidedly heavenly strains.

The orchestra was pared down to Baroque proportions for the program’s first piece - Handel’s Overture to “Theodora.” Kenneth C. Viant pointed out in his program notes that Handel considered the work to be his favorite oratorio. To a limited point that’s understandable, considering the overall intensity of the plot. The story tells of Theodora, a Christian martyr in 4th century Rome. Ironically, little of the story’s dramatic energy seems present in the overture, even in its faster second part after a staid, processional start. But the orchestra’s sound was certainly lovely enough to whet our appetites for the emotional fervor to come.

That fervor was provided abundantly by soprano Christine Brandes as she performed two Handel arias: “Angels Ever Bright and Fair” from “Theodora,” and “Let the Bright Seraphim” from “Samson.” The first aria comes during a pivotal scene in the oratorio wherein Theodora begs angels to take her away rather than be enslaved in the royal court brothel - a fate worse than death. For Samson, the aria is sung by a devout Israelite woman after Samson’s courageous death, and calls upon the angels to celebrate God’s saving power.

In his warm and astute pre-concert commentary on the program, MJ Albacete (Executive Director of the Canton Museum of Art) had explained that Handel’s arias were designed to allow individual soloists’ freedom to dramatically embellish the music according to their particular gifts. In that, Brandes was true to form. Her lower range is sonorous and expressive, providing a fluid spring board, so to speak, for her crisp and often searingly explosive upper-register accents. Certainly the high point of the evening’s first half came during the “Samson” aria. The music is scored with intricate soloing for trumpet, played here by principal trumpeter Scott Johnston with ebullient clarity. The duet of Brandes’ vivacious singing intertwined with the trumpet’s silky verve was indeed an extended moment of angelic soaring, and a clear delight to the audience.

In keeping with the evening’s ethereal content, after intermission the orchestra delivered a wondrously nuanced and stirring performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. Structured around Mahler’s 1892 song, “Das Himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life)”, and sung in its entirety by Brandes in the fourth movement, the music tells the story of a child’s vision of heaven. Watching Maestro Zimmermann conduct this beloved masterpiece – so rich in emotional energy, from perky and lilting to solemn and processional - brought to mind images of a master sculptor, mallet and chisel in hand, intensely and lovingly revealing a sumptuous form, section-by-section. Maybe that intensity of devotion to the task at hand explains Zimmermann’s baton leaving it, during the first movement, and landing (harmlessly) somewhere in the front of the house. In a particularly endearing moment, Zimmermann turned to the audience before the second movement and nonchalantly retrieved his baton (jokingly blaming the incident on pine tar) from an obliging gentleman in the front row. Such is Zimmermann’s oft-demonstrated grace and humor (I’ll bet Michelangelo wasn’t nearly as gracious when he dropped HIS chisel) which, interestingly enough, along with youthful innocence, are qualities that characterize much of this Mahler work.

Brandes’ singing of the final song was downright inspirational in its embodiment of childlike awe of heavenly wonders, its last line a fitting descriptor of the evening: “The angelic voices rouse the senses so that everything awakens with joy.” The music at this point fades ever so slowly to a lingering, sweet whisper – a gentle ‘tick-tock’ into eternity and…was that the sound of fluttering wings?

Photo: Cherubs from the Madonna of San Sisto, by Raphael, 1513

For concert and ticket info on the Canton Symphony Orchestra, please visit www.cantonsymphony.org

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