Mezzo Kelley O'Connor. Photo by Bob Olimpio, courtesy of the SLSO

Stéphane Denève continues to impress in programming the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. To sequence three works is to place them in dialogue with each other, and while Friday’s (30 September 2022) concert employed a familiar “East meets West” theme, the shorter works indeed offered insight into the nature of Gustav Mahler’s autumnal "Das Lied von Der Erde."

[Find out more about the music with the KDHX symphony preview.]

Takemitsu Tōru (1930-96) executed a fascinating feat with "Night Signal" (1987), a prayerful and, paradoxically, lightly-textured brass fanfare, despite using mostly low brass, the instrumentalists arranged in a standing row behind the idle strings.  Interested in moving past Japanese music after WWII, Takemitsu loved jazz; instruments seem to converse with and cross-talk each other in "Night Signal." A recurring, descending chord progression moved about the ensemble, returning cyclically, in lightly dissonant but largely tonal flutters. Clocking just three minutes, the players quickly resolved some initially-wooly intonation, and projected the work in a way it seems to require, almost as a fragment of a larger music outside time. Most impressive was principal horn Roger Kaza.

Like Takemitsu, Chen Qigang (1951-) studied with that Eastward-gazing French innovator, Oliver Messiaen (1908-92). And like Night Signal, Chen’s "L’Éloingment" (“Distance”), carries light echoes of Messiaen’s cathedralesque sound painting. Born in Shanghai, Chen moved to Paris after his studies during the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. While he has composed for orchestras all over Europe, his most eye-grabbing credit remains Music Director for the 2008 Olympic Ceremonies, possibly the most-viewed single event in human history. Prefacing the work, Denève related an anecdote of Chen characterizing himself as a Chinese tree, then planted in French soil and consuming water and air in a new French home.

In this vein, Chen’s movement to France and disloacation from China serve as L’Éloingment’s programmatic impetus. A peasant song, "Zou Xi Kou,” translated in Tim Munro’s program notes as “Going beyond the western gorges,” originally related a tale of a married couple forced to separate. Principal cellist Danny Lee seeded the initial statement of the tune from a fragment, which flowered throughout the strings-only ensemble about halfway through, later transformed a second time near the end. In keeping with a dialogic mode, restless arpeggios and staccato figures seemed to depict survival during and flight from great trial, and of pentatonic and diatonic modes interrupting each other. The second great statement of the folks this—this, legato—gave way to a wispy concert of high-treble harmonics ending the work. A great pleasure at the SLSO continues to be the interplay of the principal desks in the string section, and like Lee, principal violist Beth Guterman Chu stood out as a key conversant in the dialogue. The work truly renders a synthesis of Chen’s provenance and his found second home, the work coming to rest in a homey-feeling, peaceful but mystical exhalation.

With these arresting demonstrations of actual fusion of eastern and western modes of expression preceding Gustav Mahler’s "Das Lied von der Erde" (“The Song of the Earth,” 1908), it became starkly obvious that, for all its beauties and all its virtues, that’s not what "Das Lied" achieves, deployment of eastern pentatonic scales notwithstanding. Its act of fusion is one of genre, as, perhaps, the finest merger of the Austro-German symphony and the Austro-German song cycle. In our present moment of analyzing cultural appropriation, it’s easy to see that, really, there’s hardly anything Chinese about "Das Lied," insofar as the source material, Hans Begthe’s texts, were already a third-hand translation of Chinese poems, in a language Begthe didn’t speak; by the time American subtitles arrive, the audience experiences a fourth remove.  Let us allow "Das Lied" to be what it really is, Mahler’s marriage of two Western Classical music genres, on Begthe’s texts, which look and act like German verse, bearing scant similarity to eighth-century Chinese poetry.

Mahler bullseyed Autumn. This reviewer last heard "Das Lied" live in March 2021, a suboptimal timing. Even when "Das Lied" regards spring, and youth, it does so with the backward gaze of a composer dying in middle age, in texts suffused with nostalgia. The work’s tenor and mezzo-soprano speakers don’t imitate young people being young; they’re narrators from a decidedly older vantage. Autumn is the right time of year, and for me "Das Lied" lives in a suite of great texts concerned less with death itself with than the richness of the time not long before, such as Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 73," Keats’ "To Autumn," and Sergio Leone’s "Once Upon a Time in the West." “The autumn in my heart endures too long,” notes the mezzo-soprano soloist in the second song, “Der Einsame im Herbst” (“The Lonely One in Autumn”).

Mahler assigned the two soloists very different jobs in "Das Lied," and let’s face facts: the mezzo-soprano fares much better than the tenor, who spends two of his three songs celebrating drink. Too, her tessitura lies low and sounds, well, earthy, and his punches high. It was there that noted Heldentenor, Clay Hilley, making his company debut, sounded dry and a little strained at times, perhaps showing some wear from a formidable recent schedule of heavy operatic roles in Strauss and Wagner. He marshaled his instrument professionally, though with the few quieter moments in the tenor’s music verging on parlando. After an uneven initial outing in “Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde” (“Drinking song of the Earth’s misery”), he rallied in the third song, “Von der Jugend” (“Of Youth”), far less like youth than a backwards look thereupon by someone more senior. Hilley finished stronger in the fifth song “Der Trunkene im Fruhling” (“The Drunk in Spring,”), which, in Mahler’s rendering once again presents not as spring but as a remembrance of its passing. Denève masterfully controlled Mahler’s orchestral freneticism in the tenor’s songs.

Fresh off a Mahler Second Symphony in Cincinnati, Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor starred this evening. A regular SLSO guest artist last heard here in Lieberson’s "Neruda Songs" (2018), her verbal scene-painting and attention to textual detail remain exquisite. Her instrument, which perfectly unified chest and head voice, offered diverse colors ever-attuned to text, complemented by the aural seamlessness offered by Denève and the orchestra. She took the audience on a small journey in each of her three songs, adorned in a simple but elegant turquoise and black gown that somehow suggested autumn without being red or orange. Projecting a vulnerable yet strong stance in the “Der Einsame im Herbst,” she depicted flight on the word ‘verflogen,’ (“flown,” sort of) of the departed sweet scent of flowers. She offered a new brightness at “traute Ruhestätte” (“beloved resting place”), and a lovely dark tone on "Not" (“need”). The second song ends by addressing “Sonne der Liebe” (“Sun of love,”), which by then no longer shines. O’Connor continued to captivate with her textual acumen in the fourth song “Von der Schönheit” (“Of Beauty”). Backed by a brilliantly shining flute section led by Matthew Roitstein, she communicated genuine excitement in telling of the young men’s horses, which “trot” all over the orchestra, and made her instrument more slender when relating the young women’s “schlanken Glieder” (“slender limbs”).

In "Das Lied von der Erde," those first five songs comprise the beginning; the sixth, “Der Abschied” (“Farewell”) fills the entire second half of the hour-ish work, time and space to breathe. This last movement contrasts strongly with the oft-percussive struggle against death familiar from Mahler’s Sixth, Ninth, and Tenth symphonies, sampling but not dwelling in that musical language. O’Connor made her voice evoke sunset in the initial line “Die Sonne scheidet hinter dem Gebirge” (“The sun departs behind the mountains”), and she unloosed a gorgeous moriendo as Mahler’s spent Blumen (flowers) turn pale. In the last and most beautiful music in Das Lied, the orchestra embraces the mezzo’s voice, her pianissimo repetition of “ewig, ewig” (“always”) looking to the next spring that the earth will see but mortals may not. The orchestra flooded listeners with beautiful effects in “Der Abschied,” from the oddly-chilling bass notes in the harps of Allegra Lilly and Megan Stout, to the ominous calls of the French horns, to, especially, principal oboist Jelena Dirks’ plaintive tone—is there a more autumnal sounding instrument than hers? Denève punctuated the bows by installing Hilley and O’Connor on his vacated podium.

This superb concert was attended in worryingly light numbers, among the smallest I’ve seen at the SLSO. For that, provisionally blame Saint Louis heroes, Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols, saying home farewells this weekend at Busch Stadium, in their own autumnal reverie.

Next at Powell Hall: Guest conductor Jonathon Heyward leads the orchestra and violinist Hannah Ji in a program of Kaija Saariaho's "Ciel d'hiver" ("Winter Sky"), Joseph Bologne's Violin Concerto No 2 (both local premieres), and Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." Performances are Friday at 10:30 am and and Saturday at 8 pm, October 7 and 8. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live, as usual, on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

Related Articles

Sign Up for KDHX Airwaves newsletter