A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Aug 29, 2013
01:19 PM
Classically Speaking

Peninsula Music Festival, Part III: The Maestro, Mahler, and His Musicians

Peninsula Music Festival, Part III: The Maestro, Mahler, and His Musicians

The Peninsula Music Festival

Victor Yampolsky and the PMF Orchestra

Having heard Peninsula Music Festival director Victor Yampolsky bewitch a near sold-out hall last Thursday, I had little doubt that the closing of the sixty-first season of the PMF in Door County was going to be memorable. The menu was simply Mahler, both intimate and mighty; the results ran the gamut from delectable to near-total satiation.

The intimate Mahler came via the five Ruckert Lieder, a group of poems from a writer who held a deep fascination for this composer of great emotional complexity. Like many songs of Mahler, these exist in settings for voice and piano, and voice and full orchestra. Much like the piano music of Ravel which he himself transcribed, it is difficult to get the orchestral versions out of one’s ears.

But of course the greatest orchestra can’t pull it off alone, and on this occasion mezzo-soprano Janine Hawley took the stage. Like pianist Stewart Goodyear two nights before, Hawley has become a semi-regular at PMF, making her fifth appearance this year.

Select your favorite adjective for the kind of mezzo you think works best in this kind of introspective, ambiguous music—dusky, smoky, filtered—and at some point or another in the performance it would apply to Hawley. This was true even in her occasional higher notes, and it must be said that on one or two occasions, her deftly modulated timbre did get covered by the orchestra.

The highlights came in the last two lieder, “Um Mitternacht,” with its winds-only orchestration, and the mini-masterpiece “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” ("I am lost to the world"). I’m sure I was the only one in the hall that had this experience: on August 2 the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble performed a sixteen-part a cappella transcription by Clytus Gottwald; you’d have been tempted to bet the house that no one could re-purpose Mahler’s unique orchestrations without sacrificing the entire work. Gottwald’s arrangement made it sound like a whole new piece, compelling on its own terms, but Hawley, Yampolsky and company restored the original and once more, it sounded like “new” music.

The only significant disappointment of three nights of the PMF was that the program book included fabulous translations…and then the lights remained too low to follow them, a real shame since Hawley frequently inflected the texts with subtlety.

One may disagree whether Mahler symphonies may be an acquired taste, but it is true that one needs to sit back and prepare for a long rollercoaster ride. The Symphony No. 5 is roughly a seventy-minute affair, “absolute” music, with no program, no voices. You’d better bring a full toolbox: strings that can careen and whisper, a star trumpeter, the rest of a brass section that can play like a soloist, woodwinds that both chortle and sing and a battery of percussion.

Yampolsky and the PMF orchestra filled the bill. It was curious that, just now and then, the conductor’s profile brought back a fleeting memory of Leonard Bernstein (except that Yampolsky always keeps his feet on the podium). But the performance Saturday night did bring back memories of a 1989 Hollywood Bowl experience with “Lenny” and the Vienna Philharmonic.

No, I haven’t lost my critical bearings; I’m not comparing the PMF ensemble to the Vienna Philharmonic, but I will say that Yampolsky would take a back seat to no one for this reading of Mahler’s maelstrom. The first two movements, part and parcel of the same stormy, pleading resolution for victory over some unnamed angst, were measured and deliberate, but not dragging. In the ensuing nameless tone poem of a scherzo, the PMF opened new doors into sonic/emotional landscapes.

The famous “Adagietto,” that eight-minute respite of strings and harp, was all sighs and comfort, and the Rondo finale zipped and swirled to the final paean of a brass chorale that Mahler had cut short in the second movement.

As they say in the sports world, it was all over but the shouting, and the enthusiastic, near-full Door County Auditorium audience did its part. Yampolsky was careful, in the course of multiple curtain calls, to acknowledge each soloist and section at least once. But as with any great performance of a work of this stature, the whole was greater than the sum of its wonderful parts. Oh, did I mention that it was the first PMF performance of the work, and that they had all of two rehearsals?

So my first foray into the Peninsula Music Festival had come to a close. Thanks to hearing three widely differing programs, it was more like plunging into the ocean than dipping my toes into Lake Michigan. It certainly changed my idea of the perfect Door County vacation. Great hall, sharp audience, world class guests and conductors, superbly lucid program notes by Richard Rodda…and with an early Saturday curtain, plenty of time to walk down the hill for cherry pie and custard at Not Licked Yet. What do you mean that’s not a dinner entrée?

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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