Monday, October 20, 2003

Voices meld beautifully with chamber orchestra

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The most glorious moment in the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra concert on Sunday afternoon came at the coda of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, when mezzo Megan Dey-Toth sang the words "Ewig, ewig" - "Forever, forever" - against a glowing ensemble of rippling piano and intimate string sextet.

It was a stunning summation to an ambitious endeavor by music director Mischa Santora, who mounted the rarely heard chamber orchestra version by Arnold Schoenberg of Mahler's symphonic song cycle, The Song of the Earth. Dey-Toth and tenor Patrick Marques, both extraordinary singers, brought a gentle, youthful quality to the music, and phrased with intelligence and beauty. The overall effect was quite moving.

Mahler called his Das Lied von der Erde a symphony, and its proportions are indeed symphonic. The setting of six old Chinese poems - wistful thoughts on death and nature - lasts about an hour.

In the reduced version, one didn't miss Mahler's overblown orchestral textures of 100-plus musicians. The chamber orchestra's soloists soared vividly in Corbett Auditorium, and Santora inspired his smaller forces to great heights. Pianist Brendon Kinsella filled gaps in orchestration in with sensitivity and an ear for color.

The first movement, "Drinking Song," was breathtaking for the seamless collaboration between French hornist Randy Gardner and tenor Marques. In each of his three songs, Marques projected a ringing, arresting timbre and communicated the words powerfully. The third song, "Of Youth," was sheer joy. Marques, who recently starred in Houston Grand Opera's Tannhauser, is clearly a young heldentenor to watch.

Dey-Toth was a warm, appealing singer who captured the poignant quality of "The Lonely Man in Autumn," and the sweetness in "Of Beauty." Her finest moment came in "The Farewell," from her impassioned "O schonheit" (Oh beauty) to its wistful closing.

Orchestral colors were radiant, and Santora's tempos were well judged. The fact that the CCO is performing at a high level added to the performance. There was the reflective oboe solo by Christopher Philpotts in the second song, as well as beautifully phrased contributions from assistant concertmaster Jennifer Roig-Francoli and hornist Gardner.

To open, Santora led a bright reading of Schubert's Symphony No. 2. Its outer movements were fleet, and Santora seemed to energize his players. One of the highlights was the rustic color of the third movement, with a charming oboe solo at its center.

The only disappointment was the small crowd. Go to this one.

The concert repeats at 7:30 p.m. today in Northern Kentucky University's Greaves Hall. 723-1182.


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