Kirov, IPO and Birsan give thoughtful advocacy to Mahler, Thomas

Mon Nov 18, 2019 at 11:43 am

By Michael Cameron

Soprano Emily Birsan was heard in music of Mahler and Augusta Read Thomas with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in Palos Heights.

In just his third season with the Illinois Philharmonic, conductor Stilian Kirov has already left his mark. The orchestra is in top form, and the musicians clearly appreciate the clarity of his baton technique and well-informed, idiomatic interpretations. Kirov also has a knack for thoughtful programming, a process enhanced by the engagement of composers-in-residence, an act of bravery uncommon in regional orchestras. 

In their engaging concert Saturday night at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Kirov opened with the world premiere of Quiet Places by Martha C. Horst, this season’s resident composer. Her stated goal for the work was to “compose music where there was little to no traditional build-up.” Her objectives were most successfully realized in the opening movement, an assemblage of textures that were led off by faint murmurs of percussion and serene, sustained upper string harmonics. 

For this work at least, Horst clearly has impressionism in her ear, and the celeste figures were strongly reminiscent (perhaps intentionally) of “Neptune” from Holst’s The Planets. The second and third movement showed similarly skilled orchestration, but the quasi-melodic woodwind solos (all expertly and evocatively rendered) in the second movement, and the imitative figures in the third set up an expectation of form that clashed with her goal of linearity. 

Soprano Emily Birsan joined Kirov and the IPO for a finely calibrated and thoughtfully conceived performance of Augusta Read Thomas’s Absolute Ocean

Commissioned by the Houston Symphony a decade ago as a song cycle and companion piece to Mahler’s Symphony No. 4—as it was Saturday night—Thomas’s score is set to poems of e. e. cummings. Aside from a few melodic fragments in the vocal line and the odd instrumental voicing, there is little to suggest a direct connection to Mahler. But the composer’s own masterful way with an orchestra sets up an interesting contemporary parallel to the Viennese master’s music.

Thomas knows the potential perils of balance in such a work, but no matter how intricate the orchestral fabric, there was always space for the vocalist to be clearly heard. Birsan inhabited the difficult score with seeming ease, boasting warmth and urgency in her middle range and a gleaming clarity in her high register. Her lower register often didn’t adequately project and diction was suspect at times, but the acoustic quirks of Ozinga Chapel may have been partially responsible for the swallowed consonants.

While predominantly a dense and complex score, Absolute Ocean opens with a gesture of utter simplicity in the first movement (“The Moon is Hiding in her Hair”), with unisons from the soprano, harp and sustained strings before gradually introducing additional colors, most notably from the percussion section. “Who Knows if the Moon’s a Balloon” is a scherzo of sorts, a brilliant and athletic tour-de-force. The voice essentially becomes an instrument in a rollicking, pointillistic romp, often with a single, disjunct line tossed around between participants.

The third movement Interlude is relatively brief, with an extended harp solo masterfully played by Renée Wilson. The finale (“Open Your Heart”)  conjures a palpable sense of urgency, using recollections of ideas from earlier movements. There were moments of genuine dramatic interest, but this was the one movement in an otherwise captivating work that seemed a bit long. Kudos to both Kirov and Birsan for their vivid and impeccable performance.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 is the least troubled, simplest in form and lightest in orchestration of his symphonies. The textures are lean and transparent, attributes that Kirov seemed well-suited to explore. The fourth movement represent a journey toward innocence, and his song—“Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”) is his primary source material.

Throughout the performance, Kirov chose sensible tempos with subtle transitions between sections and little interest in rubatos not explicitly indicated in the score. Balances were carefully honed, but one couldn’t help notice the reduced string sections, a particular handicap of many regional orchestras. Even in a symphony with smaller orchestration than usual for Mahler, the lack of heft in the violin sections exacted a musical price.

Yet there was much to admire about the level of playing in every section, and the many woodwind and brass solos in the score were precisely and expressively performed, nearly without exception. The first movement proceeded at a leisurely pace, and Kirov’s judicious tempo fluctuations kept the formal contours in high relief. 

The wry humor of the second movement came through clearly, and special kudos to concertmaster Azusa Tashiro for her droll solos on a second violin tuned up a whole step, as requested by the composer. The third movement had many lovely moments, but an occasional expressive indulgence by this generally cautious conductor might have paid greater dividends.

“Das himmlische” was finally revealed in all its simple glory in the finale, and Birsan sang with an affecting modesty and a clear, resonant timbre. Kirov could have allowed Mahler’s brief, slow interruptions to breath more patiently, but overall it was a moving performance.

At least until the final bars. Maestro Kirov was a few seconds into the long diminuendo of the final chord when a cell phone broke the spell that had been so artfully forged in the finale. Determined not to let the phone have the final say, he held the chord past the last ring, employing herculean restraint in his refusal to otherwise acknowledge this atrocity.

One could not have scripted a more tortuous example of this scourge than inserting it during one of the most sublime fadeouts in the symphonic literature. If anyone invents a method for instantaneous deactivation of cell phone outbursts during concerts, a Nobel Prize would be a just reward. 

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