The notion that what's sometimes known as absolute music (the opposite of program music) is vague
|Thomas Hampson brought his well-schooled baritone.|
Krzysztof Urbanski conducted a warm, illuminating performance of the work Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The feelings were fully engaged, though of course listeners who gravitate toward pictorialism are justifiably charmed by the piece. On the other hand, Claude Debussy, who was briefly a music critic, was among those who, even today, think less of the "Pastoral" for what they see as its literal references. "Unnecessarily imitative," the French master sniffed, focusing on the bird calls at the end of the second movement.
One of those birds is a cuckoo, whose two-note call is best known from cuckoo clocks. A peculiar instance of literalism links both works on this weekend's program: In one of the Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the cuckoo proposes a singing contest between himself and a nightingale. Few would doubt the outcome of such a competition, but the cuckoo, having chosen an ass as judge, is awarded the palm. With falsetto followed by nasal braying, Hampson's rendering of the last line (in translation) was typical of his lively interpretation: "Cuckoo, cuckoo! Heehaw!" (The ass is a stand-in for critics, as the creature is also in Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals." I will drop this train of thought here, lest I come to resemble the transmogrified Bottom the Weaver in "A Midsummer Night's Dream.")
The baritone shared the work's vocal duties with mezzo-soprano O'Connor. Both lent full expressiveness to their songs, which are fortunately allowed space for texts and translations in the ISO program book. Some shadowy projection afflicted the end of Hampson's "Sentinel's Nightsong" and O'Connor's extended turn on the word "Haide" (heath) in "Who Thought Up This Song." Otherwise, both singers sounded vocally secure.
|Kelley O'Connor was a fine vocal partner.|
O'Connor was particularly impressive in the eerie song "The Earthly Life," which has the fateful grimness often found in folk poetry, as well as the captivating "Rhine Legend" and the well-characterized dialogue assigned to solo voice, "Labor Lost." As an encore, the singers were well-matched in an actual dialogue song from the cycle, Trost im Unglück, a romantic battle of wits.
What stood out in the "Pastoral" Symphony were the steady tempos throughout and the keen judgment of winds-and-strings balances. Movement by movement, these things as well: the evenness of the repeated figures in the first movement, the subtly impelled "scene by the river," the party spirit that animates the third movement, the pacing and varied intensity of the thunderstorm, and the authentic atmosphere of pious sincerity in the finale.
That's the peasants' hymn of gratitude to God for their having come through the storm intact and perhaps imploring divine mercy for whatever sins they may have committed in the third movement. The orchestra's sins were minimal to non-existent. Heehaw!