That an amateur orchestra should tackle Mahler would seem to swell ambition into hybris evoke awe but wreak disaster. And for it to invite so great an artist as Maureen Forrester would seem to make conceivable only nemesis or utter triumph. But the gods were sleepy Friday night; the thunderbolt never came. Neither catastrophe nor undreamed success came to the HRO: feeling flickered in the music now and again, sometimes brilliantly, but never consistently.
The group deserves praise just for attempting such a giant as Mahler, not to mention negotiating his complexities with competence. For Mahler makes incredible technical demands: every instrument must be a soloist; the conductor must dovetail many scattered parts; and a solo voice must blend evenly with the ever swelling and falling background. The simplicity and brevity of these five last Rueckert songs make the job no less difficult. Their exposed, masterful orchestration fairly invites misfortune.
Miss Forrester, it is almost unnecessary to say, displayed a subtle power for blending with the orchestra and an uncanny sense for Mahler's bittersweet melodies.
Her ability did not make a fool of the orchestra, for Senturia kept the lose fabric of the songs very well together. Still, the songs were uneven due to both technical and aesthetic failings. Too often a phrase played with nuance would give way to harsh tone, an abrupt entrance or an uncomfortable "hole," or else a passage competently played would lack lift and fall short of expressiveness.
Yet when a moving passage did come, it was intoxicating. Most memorable of all were the closing bars of Ich bin der Welt abhaden gekommen where Miss Forrester leapt a tenth with suppressed intensity, then faded out as a typically Mahlerian falling cello line, blending with the oboe high above, came to rest in a hushed cadence. Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! was most consistently well performed here with precision and urgency; on the other hand, Um Mitternacht did not find even Miss Forrester compellingly moving until its dramatic ending. In any case, the results well justified their ambitiousness. Hats off to the HRO for their attempt.
Not so to Suzanne Burke. Miss Burke is an extremely fine technician and showed an impressive mastery of the Ravel Piano Concerto, but just such ability makes the woodeness she impressed upon it all the more disappointing and inexcusable. This concerto is poetic, humorous and extravagant, substituting flair for profundity; without great liveliness and feeling (and Miss Burke lacked them) this bit of diversion becomes little but tedium.
As one person remarked, she seemed to be playing a typewriter, not a piano. Her tone never went beyond initial attack, either to poetry or bravado; it thus made the lonely melody of the second movement stilted and the jazzy exuberance of the third tame. The orchestra (particularly the winds) had more life to it. But even it unlimbered its power only in a few spots. The performance left me cold indeed.
Restraint also marked the music and performance of Kent Kennan's Night Solilquy whose small scale manages to save it from cliched post-romanticism. Senturia's reserve eliminated the occasional triteness of the orchestral part, but on the other hand it weakened the score's build-up to a flute trill. Alex Ogle provided one of the really moving points in the evening with his supple runs and dynamic shadings.
Ernest Bloch's Suite Modale had a more confused, unsteady relationship between the melodic lines of the flute and orchestra, which may have been the fault of Bloch or the performance. Otherwise, the orchestra and Ogle were adequate.
Although the four pieces span only a half-century in time, they contrast greatly in style. While the Mahler songs express a profound disillusionment, the Bloch and Ravel struggle to retain vitality by assimilating new elements--jazz and modality--and the Kennan by Restricting its own scope.