Exploring realms of memory, existence

MUSIC

November 25, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Certain works of music can carry the willing listener into another place, a world completely different from the one we know. We leave ourselves behind. Other pieces can lead us to a destination that is close, perhaps uncomfortably so, to home - the music takes us to a point deep inside ourselves where we face things that matter greatly. Things like life itself.

As for compositions that can provide the out-of-body sort of experience, an ideal example is Giya Kancheli's ... al niente, given its U.S. premiere by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in recent days. I expect to be reliving the taut performance I heard last Thursday at Meyerhoff Hall for some time to come - the slow pace, the predominantly soft dynamics, the many silences, the little snippets of melody that suggest a fading in and out of consciousness.

Dedicated to Yuri Temirkanov, who conducted it masterfully, the score relocates the audience in a whole new time zone and makes everyone part of a collective memory search.

Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, given an eloquent presentation by the National Symphony Orchestra Friday night at the Kennedy Center, is the epitome of the self-confrontational work. Mahler uses ancient Chinese poems to provide a subtle opening for a poignant examination of everything we treasure in our humanness and in nature, all the beauty and wonder, laughter and love.

In the last of the six songs that make up this extraordinary symphony for voices and orchestra, it is time to accept "the drink of farewell," to stop our wandering: "My heart is still and awaits its hour." Mahler leads us to the very edge of what it means to be alive and what it means to die. Appending his own lines to those of the 8th century's Wang-Wei, the composer offers a comforting final image - "everywhere the beloved earth blooms in spring and turns green again, everywhere and forever the distant horizons shine blue."

Confronting one's own mortality is never easy, but it becomes an incredibly affecting sensation here, as the music revolves serenely around a few descending notes. Art does not get more profound than this.

Leonard Slatkin conducted a probing performance of Das Lied. His tempos allowed equally powerful moments of momentum and repose; his phrasing yielded telling nuances of color and sentiment. As music director since 1996, Slatkin has carefully honed the NSO into a remarkably flexible and expressive instrument. Aside from a couple of cloudy notes within the woodwind and brass sections, the playing on this occasion had as much technical discipline and tonal richness as poetic feeling.

The two superb vocal soloists accounted for much of the concert's power. Tenor Donald Litaker proved unflinching in cruelly high passages and provided a brilliant range of inflections as he limned the verses. Thomas Hampson, one of today's star baritones, encountered a little tonal roughness, but his supreme sensitivity to the text and ability to get to the heart of Mahler's melodies yielded great satisfaction. (It is more common and, for me, preferable, to hear a mezzo-soprano rather than a baritone alternating with the tenor. But using two male voices does give the score an extra layer of shading.)

Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, a much-too-infrequently heard work, opened the program. The NSO was in vivid form as Slatkin insightfully explored the implications behind the notes of what is, at heart, a warning about war and a plea for peace. In its own way, this piece, like those of Kancheli and Mahler, holds you in its grip and only reluctantly lets go. That's what great music is all about.

BSO in D.C.

Earlier this month, Yuri Temirkanov led the BSO, mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby and the Choral Arts Society of Washington in a potent presentation of Prokofiev's film score Alexander Nevsky in tandem with a showing of the 1938 Eisenstein film. Last Tuesday, the same forces convened at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to present the more compact cantata version of Nevsky, which is how this music is most often heard.

Temirkanov's taut approach generated plenty of atmosphere and underlined the score's raw emotions. The BSO's string tone sounded oddly thin much of the time (maybe my ears were still just too full of the Berlin Philharmonic's sonic brilliance the night before in the same hall), but the overall playing had impressive clarity and color. The chorus sang warmly, boldly; Maultsby was, if anything, even in more sumptuous voice than she had been in Baltimore.

Brahms was the focus of the program's first half. I wish Temirkanov, quite the Brahms advocate, could have been persuaded to conduct for that portion, too. But Choral Arts founder Norman Scribner did the job very effectively. His knowing touch elicited a glowing account of the exquisite Alto Rhapsody (with Maultsby again sublime and the men of the chorus backing her beautifully) and had his singers phrasing with great flair in a selection of the Liebeslieder Waltzes. The BSO provided the singers with mostly polished support.

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