Druids and dark fables reign in compelling choral rarities from Houston Symphony

Sat Oct 05, 2019 at 1:31 pm
By Steven Brown
Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducted the Houston Symphony in music of Mahler and Mendelssohn Friday night.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada takes more interest than many conductors in the byways of the chorus-and-orchestra repertoire. He led the Houston Symphony and Chorus in The Pilgrimage of the Rose, the sweetly melodious cantata by Robert Schumann, in 2015, and on Friday he spotlighted two more rarely performed works by very familiar composers.

Having performed Gustav Mahler’s first five symphonies with his orchestra over recent seasons, on Friday Orozco-Estrada turned to Das Klagende Lied—the young Mahler’s fairy-tale saga of fratricide and supernatural justice. Felix Mendelssohn’s Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, a rousing dramatization of the ancient Druids’ annual rite of spring, ended the Jones Hall concert on an altogether cheerier note.

Though Mahler crafted Das Klagende Lied as a three-part, 70-minute score–completing it when he was 20–he jettisoned the half-hour first scene when the cantata received its belated premiere two decades after its composition.

Though some of today’s conductors, such as Michael Tilson Thomas, reach back to the full-length version, Orozco-Estrada abided by Mahler’s second thought. In the first section, “The Minstrel,” a musician traveling through the forest spots a bone on the ground and fashions it into a flute–which reveals a human voice, telling that it came from a knight whose brother killed him to win the hand of a beautiful queen. In the climactic “Wedding Piece,” the minstrel invades the murderous brother’s wedding, and the flute repeats its horrific tale to the throng.

Even the shorter version shows the young Mahler gravitating toward the orchestra more than the voice as his artistic alter ego. At times, the ensemble takes off on meditations or flights of tone-painting after every line or two of the text. The interludes can slow the storytelling just as the intensity should build—as when a minstrel’s handmade flute suddenly reveals a human voice. But they also reveal that the budding composer is already handling orchestra writing with confidence and theatrical impact.

Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra savored all that Friday. They gave the prelude a lightness and transparency—thanks especially to the deft wind playing—that helped it look forward to the al fresco passages of Mahler’s symphonies to come. The little march tune had a jauntiness that could have evoked the minstrel’s carefree ride through the woods before he learned about the bloodshed.

As the tale unfolded, the orchestra’s dark, deep-rooted tone brought a somber beauty even to dolorous episodes as well. Orozco-Estrada’s guidance, shaping the orchestra’s veiled textures, made some of the quietest moments the most powerful. 

Though the brasses had a few uncharacteristic slips, asamid the wedding fanfares, the orchestra’s power let it capture the festivities’ glitter as well as drive home the killing’s brutal repercussions. And when the orchestra broke in atop the offstage band’s wedding music–in a different key–Orozco-Estrada led the orchestra play firmly enough to emphasize the stab of dissonance, without overplaying it. As one of the score’s most remarkable effects, it didn’t need any additional histrionics.

Mahler asked the three vocal soloists mainly to take turns as narrators rather than giving them full-fledged set-pieces, and Friday’s singers handled their part of the storytelling with flair.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke had the closest thing to a scene of her own when she delivered the flute-voice’s first statement. Her weightiness and fervor gave the revelation of the killing a frisson that helped ignite the saga. 

Amplifying the flute’s story during the wedding scene, soprano Melody Moore let fly with soaring, vibrant phrases that captured the full horror of the fratricide. She delivered one of the score’s final lamenting interjections soaring to a stratospheric pianissimo. Tenor Toby Spence sang emphatically, albeit with tinges of effort at times, and in the closing moments, his half-tones captured the stillness that followed the catastrophe. The Houston Symphony Chorus, called on by Mahler mainly to punctuate the narration, brought stark force to the outcries and hushed intensity to the laments.

Die Erste Walpurgisnacht let the chorus become the work’s driving force. After an orchestral overture depicting a storm–winter’s last blast, presumably–Mendelssohn’s cantata opens with the Druids welcoming the return of spring. After paying homage to their god, they sneak out into the countryside and terrorize their Christian opponents. Then their priest leads a final hymn to the divine light that guides them.
Mendelssohn describes all that in music full of fire, melody and dramatic flair, and Friday’s performers relished it.

The orchestra brought nimbleness and drive to the overture’s churning storm, though the brasses sometimes stuck out when the woodwinds were supposed to be leading the way. As the storm gradually gave way to spring’s glow, Orozco-Estrada turned into a gestural quick-change artist—back and forth between prodding the storm’s last salvos and guiding springtime’s smoother sounds—and the musicians responded neatly.

The Houston players also brought crispness and zip to the movement that depicts the Druids dispersing through the hillsides—a twist on Mendelssohn’s elfin scherzos and perhaps the gem of the entire cantata. And Orozco-Estrada drove the group to fill the Druids’ prank on the Christians with blazing ferocity.

The chorus brought Mendelssohn’s music equal vividness, and added charms of its own. The chorus’ women welcomed spring with a sweet tone and light step that exuded mirthful fun. The full group brought fullness and grandeur to the Druids’ hymns, and it returned to the light, breezy mode in that dashing number leading to the attack. And when the Druids set upon the Christians, the chorus’ booming sound and snarling edge equalled the orchestra’s wallop.

Mezzo-soprano Cooke brought richness and a touch of pathos to the Druid woman’s warning about dangers facing the tribe. Bass Scott Connor brought booming, sneering force to the Druid guard’s aria mocking the Christians, albeit wit his eyes buried in the score.

Tenor Spence captured the Christian guard’s mid-attack terror by adding tinges of breathlessness and terror to his singing. And baritone Günter Haumer delivered the Druid priest’s proclamations in weighty, almost bass-like tone. laying a firm foundation for the Druids’ final hymn.

The Houston Symphony repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Jones Hall. houstonsymphony.org; 713-224-7575

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