United States John Adams, Mahler: Joélle Harvey (soprano), Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (director: Lisa Wong), members of the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus (director: Ann Usher), members of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus (director: Daniel Singer), Cleveland Orchestra / Jakub Hrůša (conductor). Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 14.11.2019. (MSJ)
John Adams – On the Transmigration of Souls
Mahler – Symphony No.4 in G major
John Adams pulled off a miracle writing On the Transmigration of Souls. Commemorating the September 11 terror attacks in New York City, the work was written less than a year after the event. There are a thousand ways the work could have come out offensively, but the composer deftly maneuvered through that minefield.
Adams shrewdly avoided anything mawkish or exploitative, despite the direct use of survivors’ words as texts. With its complex layering of stimuli, the work also evokes the media over-stimulation that followed the actual attacks, and in its 25 minutes, it blurs the passage of time. In some ways, it seems over in a blink of an eye. In other ways, it is epic and draining.
That latter characteristic likely keeps it from being performed on a regular basis, as well as its requirement of large choirs plus pre-recorded spoken words and sounds. But that is fitting. Adams’s opus is not cozy nor consoling, but alienating, in the best Brechtian sense. It pushes the listener back, making one contemplate the larger picture.
Almost two decades after its composition, Transmigration made its Cleveland debut. Conductor Jakub Hrůša rightly served as guide and sorter of textures without attempting to grandstand or self-glorify. Instead, he kept a firm hand on the tiller, compellingly steering the work’s complexities forward, and letting its cumulative weight make the impact. Stationed in the Severance Hall balcony, trumpeter Michael Sachs sounded the quotes from Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, and the combined choruses voiced the meditative texts with dignity. An array of loudspeakers throughout the hall amplified survivors’ messages and New York street sounds that intertwined with the live musicians. It was a powerful experience.
Programming this stern memorial aside Mahler’s often playful Fourth Symphony was a stroke of genius. Both works are about death, ultimately, but what different approaches! Of necessity, Adams commemorates a tragic, imposing historical event, but in the Fourth, Mahler broached the subject in a folkloric, at times childlike manner — and aesthetically modern, given that he wrote it in 1899-1900.
The first movement is like an overgrown Haydn sonata-allegro that has been run through a shredder and dumped out across the table in mixed-up order. Phrases suddenly jump out and are just as quickly cut off. In his Seventh Symphony, Mahler uses that technique ironically, but here it is playful and amusing, only gradually rearing the dark head of dissolution in the middle of the movement, where a trumpet fanfare appears, a fanfare that later — after the composer’s near-death illness — launched his very different Fifth Symphony.
Unlike the intelligent but rather lifeless performance Fabio Luisi led here six years ago, Hrůša was alive to every twist and turn of Mahler’s sense of adventure, pacing the movement quickly, but allowing room for divergence in the contrasting sections. Interestingly, the orchestra was left seated very forward onstage, where they had been during the first half to accommodate the chorus. This left the woodwinds tightly grouped, which, along with Hrůša’s attention, kept them very focused and never swamped by the strings.
The second movement was Peter Otto’s finest solo moment thus far as acting concertmaster. Mahler calls for a second violin, tuned a step higher than normal, but played a step lower than normal, producing a pinched, cutting tone, evoking a folkloric picture of Death playing the fiddle. On its own, the strange tuning makes these solos stand out, but Otto took it further. Using very little vibrato, he brought out the folk roots and put an unforgettable edge on this uncanny but not unfriendly depiction. Again, Hrůša’s attention to the woodwinds created maximum color and inflection.
If there were anything wanting in the conductor’s conception, the third movement could have flowed a little more. The basic tempo was traditionally slow, though conductors such as Klemperer and Inbal have demonstrated over the years that a little more flow creates a sharper contrast between the two main themes. But nonetheless, Hrůša’s slowly unfolding drift created warmth, and it worked. Best of all, near the end of the movement — after the sudden fortissimo that opens the gates of heaven — the conductor led the musicians into the blissful closing pages.
In the final movement, soprano Joélle Harvey was affecting in the child’s view of heaven, though a mature vibrato kept her from truly embodying childlike wonder. Hrůša kept her on her toes with authentically brisk tempos, achieving gentle catharsis by the end.
Aside from a good but not great Eroica last week, everything that Hrůša has led in Cleveland in the last few years has struck sparks. Perhaps a long-standing relationship as a regular guest conductor is taking shape, which would be most welcome.
Mark Sebastian Jordan