Death and ‘Resurrection’ to Open a New Season

25/09/2017

Berlioz, Mahler: Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano), Malin Christensson (soprano), Seattle Symphony and Chorale / Giancarlo Guerrero (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 21.9.2017. (ZC)

Berlioz – La Mort de Cléopâtre—Scène lyrique
Mahler – Symphony No.2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’

The history of classical music has been steered in part by unfortunate illnesses and late substitutions, and recently this storyline played out in Seattle, Washington. Shortly before the 2017-2018 season was set to begin, Ludovic Morlot, the Seattle Symphony’s music director, announced he would not be on the podium for the orchestra’s first two concert programs due to a leg injury. Enter the Nashville Symphony’s music director Giancarlo Guerrero, who stepped in to direct both the opening gala concert, as well as this past week’s performances of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony and Berlioz’s infrequently heard La Mort de Cléopâtre.

In his time as music director, Morlot has revolutionized the sound of the orchestra, which plays with infused detail, color, and dynamic range. These improvements have helped create lucid readings of a wide variety of repertoire. But in Mahler, these qualities melded with Guerrero’s visceral interpretations. His ‘Resurrection’ was a demonstration of the physical quality of sound.

Throughout the performance last Saturday night, the orchestra was whipped into frenzy. Unbridled playing with unchecked volume overwhelmed the audience and unleashed the symphony’s transcendent potential. This was most evident during the first movement’s climax, when Guerrero pushed the music forward with abandon and each passage seemed to bloom even more in Benaroya Hall’s open acoustic. When the climax erupted, the audience responded to this cathartic moment with gasps of awe, before the music receded to its conclusion and gave everyone permission to breathe again.

In the finale, Guerrero again pushed the orchestra to its limit, joined by the Seattle Symphony Chorale, with the only reprieve in beautiful solo contributions by mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn and soprano Malin Christensson. Even during the final, redemptive lyrics—the culmination of thirty overwhelming minutes—one could sense the audience was ready to let loose a deserved torrent of approval and closure.

But when needed, Guerrero found detail and nuance. He drew out sharp playing from the orchestra during the ‘Resurrection’s’ middle movements, and during the plaintive Urlicht, he matched pace with Stotijn, with firm support. The conductor coaxed the best from the orchestra in these moments, including lyrical solos from principal flute DeMarre McGill, who is back in Seattle after a stint with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Also notable were the low strings, who dug into their parts to create weight and a firm base, and the symphony’s brass section, who stepped up with pungent exclamations. Even though these central movements were more restrained, Guerrero effectively captured Mahler at his distorted, crude best. Yes, moments of beauty abound in the ‘Resurrection,’ but there are also contrasts in tempo, orchestration, and rhythm—applied effectively by Guerrero—to keep the attention of even the most seasoned listeners.

Berlioz’s cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre opened the program. The composer is a focus for the orchestra this season, and Guerrero made a strong case for this early work, which also benefited from Stotijn’s expressive range. The conductor shaped the music beautifully, with an understated intensity that underscored the singer’s dramatic vocalism.

Zach Carstensen 

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