Mahler program is rewarding


My heart is calm and awaits its hour. Everywhere the dear earth once again blossoms into spring. Everywhere and forever the blue light of distant space. Forever ... forever ...

With those lines, Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) comes not so much to an end as to an edge, the point where one reality stops and another begins.

A symphony in all but name, Das Lied, scored for two solo singers and large orchestra and inspired by ancient Chinese poetry, was the first of the composer's farewells to life. And, like the others, his Ninth and uncompleted Tenth symphonies, it achieves an amazing level of profundity.

Much of that depth could be felt in Tuesday night's performance by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra and two fine guest artists in a long, rewarding program that will be repeated in New York's Lincoln Center tonight.

Music director Hajime Teri Murai, who has addressed a Mahler work at the conservatory each season for several years, responded strongly to both the inner and outer layers of the piece.

There was terrific sweep in the boldest passages, such as the opening "Drinking Song" and the sudden burst of animation in "Of Beauty," with its neighing horses and trampling hooves. Most of the music is gentle, reflective, bathed in shimmering light, and those qualities also emerged effectively under Murai's guidance.

Mezzo-soprano and Peabody alum Theodora Hanslowe, the compelling Sister Helen in the Baltimore Opera Company's recent production of Dead Man Walking, did not produce the tonal richness ideal for this work but shaped phrases artfully.

Michael Hayes leapt fearlessly into the assignment, which tests any tenor's upper register, and put a dynamic spin on the words. His voice was on the dry side but firmly centered.

The student orchestra, which seems to have narrower gaps in technical quality between sections than in past years, sounded fully involved. The strings were especially strong, with warm, almost always clean playing.

One complaint: No texts for the audience, a curious omission for a center of musical learning.

The first half of the concert showcased some Peabody faculty - flutist Marina Piccinini and two composers, Christopher Theofanidis and Michael Hersch.

Piccinini brought supple technique, exceptional variety of tone coloring and rhythmic flair to Gran Danzon (the Bel Air Concerto), written for her by Paquito D'Rivera in his distinctive Latin/classical mode. Murai and the orchestra offered sturdy support.

Theofanidis' Rainbow Body, from 2000, has been performed by many orchestras (the Baltimore Symphony will finally catch up with it next season) and won an important British award, the Masterprize. No wonder. Its immediately appealing, distinctively lyrical style is at once old - very old, with melodic material from a chant by the 12th century's Hildegard of Bingen - and contemporary.

Murai drew a passionate performance from the orchestra here and in Hersch's brief, brutal Arrache, written for the opening of the Music Center at Strathmore last season. BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov was no great believer in the score, and that's what his performance on that occasion sounded like. Murai revealed no such reservations. His account was notably more intense and detailed.

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