MRDe-music review; What to do and not do at a performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis (conductor laureate)
with Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor) and Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006 8pm
Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto

Michael Tippett, Rose Lake
Gustav Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde


Wow ... what a great audience, save for the fact that colds seemed to be rife and there was muted coughing galore. Special kudos to the audience member who dropped his keys and didn't go diving after them during the show. I assume he recovered them during intermission but i don't really care.

However ... Roy Thomson sucks ... up the sound. I feel sorry for the strings ... they always sound a bit muted in that hall, unless you get right up front (center balcony for me tonight). The brass and the winds come off fine, as does the percussion. It's depressing, especially when compared to the "turn off your" pagers loudspeaker anouncement before the show. The loudspeaker ... lots of presence, "voice from on high" effect; orchestra ... like it's on a crummy stereo ... downstairs. In the house next door.

There's always got to be a fly in the oatmeal, eh?

Enough of this, let's talk about the show. Good idea eh?, actually talking about the music? I should get right on with that now I guess, eh? That would be good.

But first: as I walked into the foyer, I saw a sign proclaiming that tonight's performance had been supported by Tippet-Richardson, which is amazing. Not only did Tippet-Richardson support the Toronto Symphony financially, not only did Tippet-Richardson write "Rose Lake", but Tippet-Richardson supported the TSO dispite the disadvantage of having passed away in 1998! This is all so amazing, I figure you should research it all to make sure that this is all true and that I'm not making it up.

First on the programme was Tippett's Rose Lake. I heard this piece way back when it premiered in '93 or so, when I could still walk without a cane. I didn't remember it at all (except for the roto-tom part), so hearing it again was like hearing it anew. Dispite some effort on my part, it's fading from memory again, leaving impressions of sectionality, some nice wind writing, a really sharp percussion section and some precise ensemble playing ... but no memories of a smoothly flowing piece, no solid memories of any of the thematic material, no firm feeling that I was really moved in any way. It also seemed like the orchestra wasn't really wholly into the piece, dispite the aforementioned preciseness and percussionality.

The orchestra did seem to have woken up for the Mahler. Good thing, as Das Lied von der Erde is an old favourite of mine, which I'd not had a chance to hear live until now.

I'd have preferred for the tenor (Anthony Dean Griffey) to have belted out the opening song, Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, a bit more powerfully; however, I'm not sure that this was entirely his fault as Mahler wrote this one heavily (it's a bit much to hope for one person to beat out the sound of about 80, unless they have a trumpet or something to hit with a stick or a mallet) and I suspect the aforementioned Roy Thomson suckitude sucked on his sound as well. I'd have preferred a more angry go at this one; the poem has always struck me as a drunken rant, alternately very angry and then tender. We got the tenderness here, but not the anger.

Given the slight let-down of the first song, the performance was worth getting to my feet for at the end (again, with the Roy Thomson sucking as a caveat ... and a further note that Toronto really is an easy town for a standing ovation. Must be because Toronto is just plain flat-out WEAK ... a city that builds a stupid covered sports stadium where a rail yard should more properly be really can't help but being lame). Griffey's gentle performance did well in songs 3 (Von der Jugend) and 5 (Der Trunkene im Fruhling, sorry about the missing umlaut but I'm not about to go looking for the code for that, being lazy and all).

Of course, the crowning moments of Das Lied von der Erde are in the last song, Der Abshied. Mezzo Petra Lang, who had comported herself well in songs 2 and 4, surpassed herself here. The vital oboe and flute solos ... amazing, well and feelingly played. Orchestral precision and balance, so necessary for the many subtle crossfades and layered effects in the writing, was evident (again, the Roy Thomson caveat should be noted though). Davis conducted well, even bringing a new element to the opening to my ears: generally, the initial moments of the Abshied are performed quite heavily, then speed up and brighten up slightly. Davis took the opening a little more brightly, but when the material recurred, he seemed to hieghten the darkness, maybe playing it a little slower, maybe re-brightening the material a touch more slowly. Twists like this, subtle as they are, are what listening to different performances are all about.

I'll stop typing now, because there's nothing more about this piece that I'm actually going to let out of the confines of my skull.

Oh wait ... one more thing. I didn't catch what you were playing, wind player at stage right near the percussion ... but even if you have nothing to do in Der Abshied, at least pretend to listen instead of READING A BOOK ONSTAGE. I wasn't the only auditor who noticed this either ... you're ONSTAGE PERFORMING, guy ... people do WATCH YOU and behaviour like this detracts from the performance. Aside from making me wonder if you EVEN HAVE A SOUL, it's just wrong, like surfing porn at work if you don't work in a company that produces porn.

Idiot.

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