United States George Walker, Mahler: Russell Thomas (tenor), Kelly O’Connor (mezzo-soprano), Seattle Symphony Orchestra / Asher Fisch (conductor). Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 10.2.2022. (ZC)
George Walker – Lyric for Strings; Folksongs for Orchestra
Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde
Much of Gustav Mahler’s music is a swirl of desolation. Happiness and sadness, joy and despair commingle to create transformative works that move even the most jaded listener. But even though Mahler’s works are emotive, they also have withdrawn, muted tendencies: many evoke desperation – wanting to be acknowledged, but also aware that their message may be too much for some. In this, Mahler is perhaps the perfect composer for our strange pandemic time as the noise from death, strife and social decay surrounds us, even within half-empty concert halls.
The Seattle Symphony anchored their latest subscription concert with one of Mahler’s greatest compositions: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). After Thomas Dausgaard’s abrupt departure as Music Director last month, he was replaced by Israeli-born conductor Asher Fisch, who is a known quantity in Seattle. Fisch has appeared on occasion with the orchestra and was a regular presence with the Seattle Opera between 2007 and 2013; he conducted the company’s most recent Ring cycle which was recorded by Avie and released in 2014.
The first half of the program featured two works by Black composer George Walker: Lyric for Strings and Folksongs for Orchestra. Lyric is likable from the opening bar, and the Seattle Symphony’s strings used plush playing to draw out Walker’s aching melodies. Folksongs, however, is a creation from an entirely different time. Walker composed Lyric in 1946 but penned Folksongs almost 45 years later in 1990, and it bears the hallmarks of his straddling compositional style.
Mahler’s probing song cycle, anchored by mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor and tenor Russell Thomas, made up the program’s second half. Though technically not a symphony, it has a symphonic scope, tone and scale – and Asher Fisch’s command of aural shape benefited the work immensely. The Seattle Symphony triumphed in the piece’s grander moments, especially those with Russell Thomas. When necessary, Thomas was powerful, but he also showcased a vocal flexibility that benefited the work, especially in the opening song (a favorite of mine). The orchestra excelled in quieter passages as well, and in the lengthy final movement – ‘Der Abschied’ (‘The Farewell’) – created one of the most memorable Mahler moments in Benaroya Hall. Kelly O’Connor was at her best along with strong wind contributions, and this ‘Farewell’ will not soon be forgotten.
At its essence, Das Lied von der Erde speaks poignantly to the difficulty of getting through life, particularly the tension between what we know to be real and what we convince ourselves is real. Is there a better piece for our pandemic times? We allow ourselves to be swept away by the moment of hearing live music, even as we don masks, show vaccine cards at the door and wonder when, if ever, we will return to ‘normal’.
The same can be said for the Seattle Symphony right now. Without a permanent music director, the orchestra’s artistic identity is paused and feels insecure. One person – one conductor – should never be expected to bear the burden of an orchestra’s artistic identity, even if that is what audiences and donors have come to expect. And yet, each guest conductor now should be viewed as a possible successor to Thomas Dausgaard and evaluated by what they might bring to the music-making at Benaroya Hall. Asher Fisch demonstrated that he would be a serious contender if he is interested: on the evidence of this performance alone, he can be trusted to maintain the core of the orchestral repertoire. Is this enough to build a durable, new identity for the Seattle Symphony? Only time will tell. Until then, the music must continue.