Tom Strini

Mozart’s delight, Adams’ 9/11, Mahler’s ascension

Edo de Waart returns to the MSO podium with a brilliant soprano, Miah Persson.

By - Sep 22nd, 2012 01:55 am

John Adams. Margaretta Mitchell photo courtesy of

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…


Soprano Miah Persson. Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt artist management.

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.

Music director Edo de Waart led his first concert of the season. Even by his and this orchestra’s high standard, the MSO played and Lee Erickson’s MSO Chorus sang extraordinarily well. Transmigration, with its dense, fragmented choral parts, must be a monster to make ready. But Erickson and the MCC’s Jason Clark prepared them well. Young and old alike hit those cues with great confidence and infused the rhythms with vigor.

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.

Don’t miss anything! Bookmark Matthew Reddin’s comprehensive TCD Guide to the 2012-13 Season. Sponsored by the Florentine Opera.

0 thoughts on “MSO: Mozart’s delight, Adams’ 9/11, Mahler’s ascension”

  1. Anonymous says:

    An interesting tie-in with the secondary, mis-tuned violin played by Frank Almond in the Mahler. Here we had three different ways of invoking horror with the human voice: Firstly from Mozart in the unearthly, gliding wierdness of the castrato range which was beautifully abstracted by Miah, secondly in Adams the Twlight Zone spoken fragments with minimalist choral tensions and pulsating “quasar” screams, and thirdly, the burly, ghoulish effrontery of an evil child in song, whose intonations and visage are in direct opposition of the purity of the words–a great and terrifying characterization by Miah. The orchestra, with veils of toneless harmonic continuum invoked, like Halloween holograms, demons of sickly, contaminated air, electric currents, and vacuuous perspectives of unprecedented nothingness. The slow movement in the Mahler with its twisted, even punishing beauty in blatent contrast with the “Heavenly Lengths” motto applied to classic repertoire–such as in Schubert and Beethoven, was there to evoke misery with more pleasure for too long of a duration for human tolerance to be in any way taken as a decorative element in the symphony or as entertanment. That movement was a lethal monster in itself.

  2. Anonymous says:

    What does all this mean Valerie? Did you like the music? Leave early? Get lost coming back from the rest room? Perhaps it was too blatant for your tastes.

  3. Anonymous says:

    If anyone was curious, the guest principal trumpet (who had a big offstage solo in the Transmigration) was, I believe, Karin Bliznik, associate principal of the currently-locked-out Atlanta Symphony and principal of Edo de Waart’s Sante Fe Opera orchestra.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Kyle. Appreciate the info. — Strini

  5. Anonymous says:

    Maureen, if you hang around here much, you’ll get to know Valerie as an impassioned lover of music and a tireless correspondent. She attends absolutely everything. I’ve come to enjoy her poetical flights of fancy, which she often shares in the comment boxes. — Strini

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thanks. The limb felt shaky.
    Loved your review by the way.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Maureen, my tastes in music are radical and perverse.

  8. Anonymous says:

    regarding the placement of the beautiful at the service of aesthetic anti-fuel a sympatico parallel is found in this article

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Tom

  10. Anonymous says:

    My reading of Friday night’s performance differs from the preceding. I was not as enamored of the Adams. It is interesting how quickly avant garde pieces such as Adams’ Transmigration begin to sound dated. “I see water and buildings.”

    My recommendation for a better meditation on the brutality of modern warfare would be The Armed Man, a Mass for Peace, by Karl Jenkins. It was written in commemoration of the Kosovo tragedy and has been performed locally by semi-professional orchestra and chorus to good effect. The music is accessible yet delivers new revelations with each hearing.

    I have to question de Waart’s judgement in forcing his audience to sit through the 25 minutes of Adams’ formless Transmigration, and a twenty minute intermission, before embarking on the evening’s main course, the Mahler 4th.

    The Mahler performance, by the way, was excellent with exceptionally fine ensemble by the orchestra.

  11. Anonymous says:

    My impression of Friday night’s performance differs from the preceding. I was not so enamored of Adams’ Transmigration. “I see water and buildings.” For a better meditation on the brutality of modern warfare I would recommend The Armed Man, a Mass for Peace, composed by Karl Jenkins. It has been performed locally by semi-professional orchestra and chorus to good effect. The music is accessible, but delivers new insights with repeated hearings.

    I have to question de Waart’s judgment in making his audience sit through 25 minutes of the formless Transmigration, and then 20 minutes of intermission, before embarking on the evening’s main focus, Mahler’s 4th . . . especially on a Friday night, with a concert that begins at 8pm.

    It is difficult for musicians to remain focused over such an expansive piece at the 4th. Nonetheless, the orchestra performed the Mahler with exceptional ensemble throughout

  12. Anonymous says:

    So, I see. New comments appear at the top, not the bottom. Sorry for the repeat posting.

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