Mozart’s delight, Adams’ 9/11, Mahler’s ascension
Edo de Waart returns to the MSO podium with a brilliant soprano, Miah Persson.
What compositional task could be more daunting than writing the official 9/11 piece for the New York Philharmonic? It fell to John Adams in early 2002, before the rubble had been cleared. The whole world would be listening. How difficult would it have been not to be maudlin, or jingoistic, or self-conscious, or trite, or inadvertently offensive in a world of hair-trigger sensibilities?
Adams responded with On the Transmigration of Souls. The Milwaukee Symphony, Symphony Chorus and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir Jubilate, with Edo de Waart conducting, gave Transmigration its first local performance Friday night.
To hear it is to realize that we are not done with 9/11. Adams wove in recorded street sounds, a litany of names of the dead, texts from home-made messages of grief that went up all over New York after the atrocity. They hit home with great force. The Uihlein Hall audience remained utterly silent for quite a long time when the music stopped Friday night.
The emotional cord winds music and memory so they can’t be separated. I can imagine, with the passage of time and the fading of memory, and given the specificity of the text, that Transmigration might lose some of its emotional power. But for now and for a long time to come, America needs this music. In its long opening passage, gentle bells and cymbals glimmer like vigil candles amid a quivering atmosphere of strings and voices. Fragmentary texts drift through the choruses. Transmigration is neither elegy nor memorial; it’s more a meditation. It does not so much progress through time as envelop us in space. It’s not exactly comforting, but it puts the mind and soul in a calm place in which to consider life and death.
I thought Adams would let it fade away, but he did not go gently. Hard sticks beat out a tattoo, an alarm, on a cymbal, and de Waart gathered the orchestra and choruses into a monumental cry and anguish and anger. You’d think such an outburst would be cathartic, but no. When the dust cleared, we were left with gentle metallophones again, and names and IDs of the vanished: hair – brown, eyes – hazel, weight – 180…
Catharsis implies a purging of emotions. We’re not ready for that, and Adams wasn’t aiming for it. But he couldn’t ignore the fury and grief; they had to be in the music. The music brings them to the surface 11 years later.
Transmigration had no discernible relation to Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate, which preceded it, or Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, which followed. But they had the spectacular Miah Persson in common. The Swedish soprano sang both Mozart’s solo cantata in three movements and the substantial song that is Mahler’s fourth movement.
Mozart here celebrates the human voice with brilliant virtuoso flights. He must have envisioned someone like Persson, with her miraculous articulation and pitch in coloratura passages and rich lyricism in legato. She projects powerfully without a hint of strain. Her singing remained sweet at extreme dynamics and range, which served her well with Mahler’s heavier orchestration. Persson’s awareness of the impetus of the phrase and the meaning of the music and text further lifted her out of the ordinary. She took nothing for granted and shaped her lines in thoughtful, engaging ways, and she has a canny ear for detail. Mahler peppered her song, on a text about the souls of children enjoying life in heaven, with accented grace-notes that drop a whole step to long, sustained tones. They bring to mind signaling horns calling from Alpine peaks. Persson sang them just that way, with a beguiling lontano effect that I cannot explain but that charmed me utterly.
You know how on a crisp fall day you suddenly see the world in sharper focus? You could hear Mahler and Mozart that way Friday — everything in exquisite detail, but still gathered into a convincing whole. De Waart invested in every note and phrase, the orchestra bought in as they always do for their maestro. They reveled in the music and its joys and sorrows, but at the same time showed absolute discipline in ensemble and intonation. On some days, the world seems especially alive. Music can be that way, too.
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