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The excellent Charlotte Symphony, under the direction of Music Director Christof Perick, opened its 2008-9 season with a well-chosen program of selections from Die Entführung aus dem Serail by Mozart and the Symphony No. 1 in D Major by Gustav Mahler. As has become the habit with many orchestras, this first concert of the season was preceded by the music John Stafford Smith originally used for the bawdy "Ode to Anacreon" but which also served Francis Scott Key as the setting for his poem now revered as "The Star Spangled Banner." The large audience was also advised to be hearty when applauding and to mute all electronic devices, because, for the first time in over ten years, the concert was to be broadcast live by the local FM station, WDAV.
Mozart's first German opera, the most successful opera during his lifetime, is full of musical gems, starting with the Overture. Paced at a fast clip and incorporating the Turkish or Janissary percussion (cymbal, triangle and bass drum) which were all the rage in aristocratic Europe at the time, the overture is in three sections, a slow minor variant of one of the later arias from the opera separating the fast "Turkish" music from its reprise at the end. The strings were energetic in the brisk tempo set by Maestro Perick and the performance was marred only by some inattention to intonation; the piccolo was sharp in both rapid sections and the clarinet and flute had difficulty matching pitches in the long sustained notes in the middle section.
Attractive and slender Heidi Meier is, by all accounts, a rising young super-star in the world of coloratura sopranos. Her technique and vocal production were superb, marred only by the tendency in the first aria, "Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose" ("Sorrow is my fate"), to sing slightly sharp on all but the crystalline-pure highest notes.
Tackling next the famous and treacherously difficult aria, "Martern aller Arten" ("Torture of every kind may await me"), Ms. Meier effectively chose to emphasize the lyrical qualities of this aria over the dramatic ones. This aria is accompanied by a quartet of virtuosi within the orchestra. Mozart assigns solo roles to the flute, oboe, violin and cello which were deftly played with subtle finesse by the principals of the orchestra.
The second half of this festive opening concert was filled by the monumental Symphony No. 1 in D by the young Gustav Mahler, destined to become a controversial musical iconoclast. Spurning a score, Maestro Perick conducted the hour-long work by memory and with great authority and energy.
The first movement evokes sounds in nature and uses themes from the composer's earlier Songs of a Wayfarer, with its good-natured "Guten Morgen" ("Good Morning!"). The woodwinds, particularly the principal clarinet as the cuckoo, were at their best in these evocative and misty moments, and again, in the second movement, in the sassy fragments ("keck" in the score). And until an unfortunate bobble in the transition to the trio of the Scherzo, the horns were in fine fettle, the best they have sounded in several years!
This early work (1888), despite its massive proportions and dramatic mood shifts, doesn't break new ground in terms of form but portends innovation in its emotional content. After all, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (1824) had introduced the idea of playing the Scherzo before the slow movement, making it almost a massive coda to the first movement. Mahler also places the scherzo after the long first movement, but it stands on its own, a boisterous Ländler (a waltz-like peasant dance) with a gentle and wistful trio.
The slow third movement takes the folk tune known as "Frère Jacques" in a minor mode, assigning it first to the solo double bass and then parading it through the whole orchestra before introducing other Klezmer-like elements and themes, ending in a subdued and sleepy reprise of the original folk tune.
The last movement erupts with a loud burst of dissonance and continues a long and agitated tirade for several minutes before yielding suddenly to a beautiful slow and tender melody played by the cellos and first violins in octaves. It is in this long last movement that one glimpses the intensely personal and often unpredictable genius of Mahler. Again using Beethoven's Ninth as his model, Mahler introduces a restatement of themes from previous movements. But whereas Beethoven linked this recall to a rejection of the past — "Freunde, nicht dieser töne..." ("Friends, not these notes..." [but instead new notes]), Mahler uses the long quotations of earlier passages to create a feeling of reminiscence, even of nostalgia. The program notes of Richard E. Rodda implicate Mahler's turbulent youthful love life in the composition of the whole symphony, and this long reflection on the past lends credence to that idea. But life must go on, and the sturm und drang resumes, building to a climactic if abrupt end. Maestro Perick and the orchestra deserved the standing ovation the audience gave them.