CSO, Alsop present an evening with the Mahlers at Ravinia

Thu Jul 20, 2023 at 12:06 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

Sasha Cooke performed songs of Alma Mahler with conductor Marin Alsop and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Wednesday night at Ravinia. Photo: Patrick Gipson / Ravinia

Wednesday night’s program at the Ravinia Festival was fittingly called “Meet the Mahlers.” “Mahlers” plural because chief conductor Marin Alsop, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed music by both Gustav and Alma, culminating in the former’s Fifth Symphony.

Alma Mahler was represented by four art songs, orchestrated by British brothers David and Colin Matthews. Her inclusion was in keeping with this season’s emphasis on women composers, exemplified by next week’s Breaking Barriers Festival.

Alma’s compositional voice is quite dissimilar from her husband’s. It sounds instead like Zemlinsky—her teacher and one-time lover—or even early (pre-atonal) Schoenberg. Melodies are less tuneful, more angular. Modulations are moodier and more abrupt.

These expressionistic qualities were brought out in the Matthews’ orchestration, particularly in the dark woodwind and brass shadows cast in their arrangement of “Die stille Stadt.”

Cooke is something of a specialist in this repertoire. Her tone—plush but not heavy—is perfectly idiomatic. She varied her sound subtly between songs to suit their subject matter. Her rendition of “Laue sommernacht” was darker and fuller than her rosier “Bei dir is est traut.”

But although her phrasing was consistently compelling from a purely musical standpoint, there were missed opportunities to take greater advantage of the poetic text. The outbreak of “the song of praise” at the end of “Die stille Stadt” was less of an emotional transformation than it could have been. The last song she performed, “In meiner Vaters Garten,” features stanzas sung by three different characters, whom she did not attempt to give distinctive vocal personalities.

Alsop was a sympathetic accompanist, never overshadowing her soloist. The CSO’s woodwinds—especially the clarinets—made much of the shades of light and dark that the Matthews’ arrangements afford.

Gustav Mahler was represented by two pieces. The first was “Blumine,” the jettisoned movement from his Symphony No. 1. Alsop’s reading was bucolic, pervaded by a general atmosphere of tranquility, with fleeting moments of passion. Principal trumpeter Esteban Batallán took advantage of this opportunity to show a warm, lyrical side, unlike the fire the Fifth Symphony would call for.

Marin Alsop conducted the CSO in Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 Wednesday night. Photo: Patrick Gipson / Ravinia

Of course, the epic Fifth was the program’s focus. A listener wishing to relish all of Mahler’s orchestral oddities might have come away slightly unsatisfied. This was not a performance that emphasized color or quirkiness—apart from Alsop’s surprising emphasis on percussion.

But anyone who loves Mahler as a melodist was surely pleased. Alsop and the orchestra phrased lovingly throughout, with abundant detail without veering into affectation.

Except for a slightly flat-footed opening to the Scherzo (which fared much better in the reprise), Alsop’s tempo choices felt natural, with just enough rubato to let the music breathe.

Still, there were a few questionable dynamic choices. Mahler contrasts the cataclysmic moments in the first two movements with pianissimo passages, sometimes marked sempre (always)pianissimo. 

These were never pianissimo, however, in Alsop’s interpretation. Until the section for cello and timpani alone, in the middle of the second movement, Alsop and the orchestra never got below piano for more than a few bars at a time. Thankfully, this problem did not affect their aptly tender rendition of the Adagietto.

In the finale, there was the opposite problem. For the entire first half of the movement, Alsop and the orchestra ignored most of Mahler’s exhortations to play loudly, saving that power for the second half of the movement. While this might make sense as a large-scale trajectory, it drained the movement’s first half of its vitality, which is necessary to prevent it from sounding like a counterpoint exercise.

Everywhere but the first half of the finale, however, people who like their Mahler explosive got their money’s worth. The climaxes were glorious blazes of sound. Chicago’s brass section lived up to their reputation. They summoned majesty and snarled with fury with equal aplomb.

The same could be said for the brass soloists. In the first movement, Batallán cut through the entire orchestra without ever letting his tone grow too shrill or piercing. The solos in the scherzo from principal hornist David Cooper positively gleamed. At the end of the symphony, Alsop let each section take its individual bow, and they all deserved it.

The Ravinia Festival continues Thursday night with a celebration of violinist Miriam Fried, featuring the Ariel Quartet playing Haydn, Ravel, and Schubert. ravinia.org

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “CSO, Alsop present an evening with the Mahlers at Ravinia”

  1. Posted Jul 20, 2023 at 3:37 pm by Odradek

    I agree with most of this review. The Mahler 5 had the flaws you mention, but it made up for it in excitement as well as some great playing. To be honest I didn’t pick up on the piano/pianissimo distinction; this is the sort of thing that’s not so apparent at an outdoor venue, where the sound tends to dissipate.

  2. Posted Jul 22, 2023 at 11:41 am by Paula Kowalkowski

    I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of the ‘flat-footedness’ of the beginning of the Scherzo movement. AND I thought that the Adagietto was a bit fast–and thus lost some of it’s emotion/sensitivity.

    Cooper is as exciting to watch as he is to hear. What an amazing musician! He is the principal horn–why not give him tenure??

Leave a Comment