MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Thrilling Berlioz and Mahler with Guest Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and Seattle Symphony

1718_Concerts_Mahler 2_ Carlin Ma-3940-2

Giancarlo Guerrero conducting the Seattle Symphony; photo (c)Carlin Ma

It’s one thing to fulfill an emergency engagement, subbing at the last minute for to conduct an orchestra that’s essentially new to you.

But when the program is as challenging as the one Ludovic Morlot had planned to launch Seattle Symphony’s main concert series, the stakes are significantly intensified.

Giancarlo Guerrero pulled it all off to extraordinary effect on Thursday evening, the first of three concerts pairing Berlioz and Mahler. Guerrero has made himself an invaluable musical force as music director of the Nashville Symphony, where he actively promotes a vigorous commitment to new music and American composers. He’s also pursued creative links with that city’s rich music scene beyond the classical realm. [Full disclosure: I serve as the Nashville Symphony’s program annotator.]

Technically, this wasn’t the Costa Rica-born maestro’s first rendez-vous with the SSO. I can’t find any online record of it–and would love to know what the program was–though he did conduct them once before: apparently in 2004. But the membership has changed significantly since (seven members joining/rejoining the ranks as of this season), and this was no program of routine, tried-and-true orchestral fare. [Update: It was an all-Gershwin program in what was then called the “light classics series”: An American in Paris, the Concerto in F, Catfish Row, and Rhapsody in Blue — h/t Jeff Eldridge.]

(I wrote separately about Morlot’s thinking behind the program. A leg injury has sidelined the maestro, causing him to miss the season’s opening events.)

The concert began with a Berlioz rarity: La Mort de Cléopâtre, one of the four cantatas he wrote in his bid to win the Prix de Rome. (Despite its beauties, this one, from 1829, didn’t succeed with the jurors.) It’s not only a fascinating piece, but Guerrero shaped it with commendable conviction, coaxing some splendid nuances from the SSO.

And the soloist, Dutch mezzo Christianne Stotijn, credibly inhabited her character as the desperate Cleopatra facing the ultimate humiliation from her latest Roman conqueror, Octavian: sexual indifference and the prospect of trading her throne for a future of enslavement.

The writing is at times downright awkward, with long stretches of recitative, and it took a few minutes to begin making its proper impact. But Stotijn used the music’s fascinatingly unpredictable blend of anxiety, pride, shame, and sorrow to shape Cleopatra’s awareness of being trapped–and, ultimately, her restored sense of power by choosing her quietus to make.

Stylistically, it’s all very mixed: Berlioz’s love of Mozart and Gluck sits side by side with wildly original harmonies and orchestral effects, especially in the passage Berlioz devises to depict the aura of Cleopatra’s Pharaonic forebears.

Significantly, Berlioz doesn’t supply a transcendent Liebestod in which Cleopatra envisions her forthcoming liberation through death. (Then again, he was limited to a text pre-selected for him to set by the jury.) Instead, the cantata concludes in suspense and sepulchral darkness. Guerrero elicited especially impressionable moments here, allowing full resonance for Berlioz’s notably understated conclusion–all the more effective after the torrent of passions expressed earlier.

And that was just the first half of this remarkable concert. Guerrero has cultivated his gifts as a Mahler interpreter over the past decade with the Nashville Symphony, but this was my first opportunity to hear his Mahler live. The impact of his Mahler Second was electric and lasting.

Overall, Guerrero exuded an air of inspired confidence, of knowing just what he needed to get from the orchestra and singers without being overly controlling. His podium manner is quite interesting to watch: like a film director right on top of where the camera’s eye should be, he zoomed in and out, cutting across to dramatically contrasting shots and perspectives.

Guerrero turned orchestral knobs and signaled “more” for the many shattering climaxes that punctuate this symphony lasting the length of a feature film. In the Andante immediately following the vast, funereal opening movement, the scene changed so drastically it was as if we had landed for the moment in an entirely different narrative, as the conductor nearly held still, using minimal, graceful gestures to get maximal bloom. For a few moments, I was hoping Guerrero would observe the five-minute pause Mahler asks for in the wake of the devastating first movement (which he apparently has done in Nashville). Perhaps some intangible factor from the audience made him decide to limit the break to a more conventional length.

The scherzo’s restless flow (in which Mahler recycled his setting of the Wunderhorn tune “St. Anthony Preaching to the Fish”) churned evocatively, with Guerrero wiggling to direct the flow just so. He also underscored the bittersweet klezmer snap of the commenting woodwinds (featuring Ben Lulich’s wondrously phrased clarinet).

Stotijn sang a moving “Urlicht” over radiant brass and a serene bank of beautifully balanced string harmonies. That movement convinced me how multilayered Guerrero’s vision of Mahler is: he had no hesitation to go full throttle in the outer movements (and in the “panic” outburst of the Scherzo, where the intertextuality of Mahler’s symphonies–here anticipating the Third–is so strikingly manifest). But he also showed faith in Mahler’s gentlest orchestrations, savoring its most delicate intimations with genuine sensuousness.

If there’s a musical equivalent to the scope of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine, the last movement of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony has to be a major candidate. A few moments seemed to lose a sense of the bigger picture–and this score, for all its miracles, is not without flaws–but I especially valued the suspense Guerrero built up in this scenario of Mahlerian apocalypse.

The Seattle Symphony Chorale didn’t quite achieve the sotto voce effect that makes the choral entrance such a unique, impossible moment, but they ensured that the catharsis Mahler writes into this score happened nonetheless, singing with soul-shattering, heaven-storming power, reinforced by Joseph Adam on the organ. Soprano Malin Christensson joined Stotijn, contributing thrilling colors that soared atop the mass of choral voices.

The SSO, dramatically expanded with guest players and crowding the concert stage, gifted the audience with some of the finest Mahler I’ve heard this orchestra achieve.

Review (c)2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

Filed under: Berlioz, Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

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