Ars Viva’s Mahler movingly memorializes recent tragedy 

Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 11:56 am

By Dennis Polkow

Baritone Gerard Sundberg was the soloist in Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” with Alan Heatherington and the Ars Viva orchestra Sunday.

With the country still immersed in the shadow of twenty children having been killed last month in Newtown, Connecticut, the coincidental timing of the scheduled performance of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder by Ars Viva Sunday seemed eerily yet movingly appropriate.

German poet Friedrich Rückert had lost two daughters to scarlet fever six weeks apart in 1833-4 and responded by writing no less than 428 poems about the deaths of children. Mahler set five of these from 1901-04 before losing a daughter to the same disease three years later.

Music director Alan Heatherington had himself lost a young daughter to cancer in 1990, noting in highly personal and eloquent remarks that he was dedicating the performance “to the children and the parents of Newtown.”

“I never had the courage to do this piece since my daughter’s loss until now,” said Heatherington at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. He added that there were musicians onstage and others in the audience that had also lost children and that they all “survive as best they could.”

Soloist Gerard Sundberg has a melancholy yet youthful timbre to his voice that could not be more ideal for this mood-imbued music, along with the baritone’s exquisite German diction and a remarkable gift for text-painting and storytelling.

His rendering of Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n communicated the seemingly stately indifference of sunshine and Nature itself as life goes on, while Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen grew in intensity at the realization that the once-near glance of a child is now as distant yet faintly brilliant as starlight.

Wenn dein Mütterlein had a lilting, meandering quality to it, a melancholy lullaby of a would-be apparition, whereas Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen dared to inject the hope that where they have gone, we, too, will follow.

The finale In diesem Wetter with its orchestral “storm” so carefully portrayed by Heatherington and the orchestra giving way to a diatonic clearing of resignation that was rendered so delicately as to suggest a ghostly quality.

Making for as dramatic a Mahlerian contrast to Kindertotenlieder as imaginable, the musically fragrant Blumine is an earlier piece that Mahler initially included in his First Symphony only to later excise it after which it was lost for several decades.

Heartherington wisely takes Mahler at his word that the piece ultimately does not belong in the First Symphony but instead performed it quite effectively as a pastoral tone poem on its own.

Barbara Butler performed the work’s trumpet solo on a valved posthorn, a reminder of how similar in character the piece is to the posthorn sections of the Third Symphony.

Beethoven’s First Symphony followed Blumine, a juxtaposition that worked quite well given the immense optimism and humor of Beethoven’s most Haydenesque symphony.

Rather than expansive Classicism, Heatherington choose to interpret the work as a precursor to Romanticism, which dictated slower tempos and greater flexibility and rubato than has become customary in performances of recent years.

The opening movements tended to be cumbersome at times, although transparency was maintained. Nonetheless, by contrast, the finale was delightfully playful and forward-looking with plenty of momentum and spirit.

The afternoon opened with a colorful and humor-imbued traversal of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ evocative and Ravel-inspired Overture to The Wasps, part of his early incidental music for Aristophanes’ satire about spurious ancient Athenian jurists.

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One Response to “Ars Viva’s Mahler movingly memorializes recent tragedy ”

  1. Posted Jan 15, 2013 at 5:05 pm by Diane Hornstein

    Maestro Heatherington is superb in his rapport with the audience and makes magic with the Ars Viva orchestra. Don’t miss this orchestra for a sublime musical experience!

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