Robynne Redmond Sings Mahler
Many things improve over time. This fact became apparent as we watched the twenty-seven year old conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustav Dudamel, on October 21 on PBS on high-definition TV with stereo sound that captured the lively acoustic of the new Disney Hall. My college introduction to music textbook listed Mahler as “a minor Wagnerian.” The black and white TV brought us Leonard Bernstein and Columbia Records brought us Bernstein conducting Mahler and I fell in love. A few years later (1966) I was in a graduate program near Philadelphia. At a Sam Goody’s record shop I found a LP of Christa Ludwig singing Mahler songs, including the cycle Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). It was my first recording of classical song.
Sunday, October 18, in the Atrium of Chandler Hall with mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon and the Old Dominion University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lucy Manning was my first chance to hear a live performance of music I have enjoyed for so many years on CD. In conversation with Ms. Redmon after her stunning performance she told us her side of the story. As a nineteen year old voice student her teacher, Elena Nikolaidi, worked with her extensively on the first of the four songs, Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my love becomes a bride) only to be told she was not yet ready for this Mahler cycle. This was Robynne’s first opportunity to sing these beautiful orchestral songs in performance.
Conductor Manning asked Ms. Redmon what she would like to sing with the orchestra. When she said the Mahler cycle the conductor was skeptical that the orchestra was up to the task but they acquitted themselves well, backing a ravishingly beautiful performance. Written for heavier voices, the cycle is most often sung and recorded by baritones. The songs display Mahler’s melodic gift and are lyrical, requiring a singer with an extensive vocal range and dynamic facility. The text by Mahler is highlighted by his word painting, heightening the emotional content with a two-part linear texture that interweaves voice and orchestral lines.
Many musicologists consider Songs of a Wayfarer the first authentic orchestral song cycle. Mahler began composing the cycle in December 1884 and finished it the following year with piano accompaniment. He came back to the cycle, orchestrating it in 1891. It was first performed in 1896 and published the following year.
The story is of a young man, a journeyman or apprentice, who is in love and watched his beloved marry someone else. I doubt he ever told her of his love and now he suffers in silence. Ms. Redmond sings with utter simplicity and emotional transparency going straight to our hearts. The second song is Ging heut Morgen übers Feld (I walked across the fields this morning). The morning is sunny, the grass is covered in dew, the birds sing and the Wayfarer, like the bluebells, is merry and in good spirits until the last phrase overwhelms us with his suddenly remembered unhappiness. In Ich hab’ein glühend Messer (I have a gleaming knife) the Wayfarer gives full vent to his despair. The music is intense and driving, fitting the agony of his obsession - he feels as if there is a red-hot knife in his breast and wishes for death. The raw quality of the emotion expressed by the singer in Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (My darling’s two blue eyes) sends him to wander the world. He finally finds rest under a blossoming linden tree where he falls asleep and a shower of blossoms falls over him. He comes to terms with the ebb and flow of love and sorrow, world and dream.
The program opened with Aaron Copland (1900-1990) Fanfare for the Common Man with the brash percussion and trumpet fanfare that threatens to destroy speakers on home stereo systems. No worry here, except for a brief second of unsteadiness in the trumpets. Then Deanna L. Kringel conducted Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for solo string quartet and double string orchestra. Ms. Kringel is in her tenth year as director of orchestras at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake and is also a strings teacher. We sat on the stairs (the only seats left with this capacity audience) just high enough to see the youthful players intensely focused as they created the lush, sensual sound of the Fantasia. The richness of basses and cellos joined the smaller string instruments as the demure, young conductor drew out the long lines of excellent soloists. At the end the sound flowered, opening out beautifully, then died away.
For the last piece Ms. Manning returned to conduct the Adagio molto - Allegro con brio movement of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Symphony No.1 in C Major, Op. 21. Beethoven’s happiness expressed in the piece has him musically jumping up-and-down with glee. To my surprise the Atrium had a fine, open sound that let the orchestra be heard clearly and cleanly.
The evening was a complex showcase for talented students and outstanding teachers from the ODU Music Department. The evening was divided into three segments. First came a reprise of the music of the ODU Concert Choir's program, “Choral Music of Virginia Composers, ” from their March 27 concert at Carnegie Hall, led by Nancy Klein. A brief intermission allowed time for the stage to be set for the ODU Symphony Orchestra, led by Paul Kim and featuring winners of the Young Artist Competition: flutist Hyorim Kim and pianist Nichole Dorobanov. Both students demonstrated their accomplished playing. For this listener Maurice Ravel's (1875-1937) Piano Concerto in G Major, Allegramente was exciting.
The third section joined both groups for Mozart's “Coronation Mass” with a quartet of soloists, three of whom are voice students of Dr. Brian Nedvin. The fourth has an academic concentration in conducting.
My favorite section was the five-song Carnegie Hall reprise. The first, Great Day! (1981) was set in the style of an Appalachian shape-note Spiritual by Marvin V. Curtis (b. 1951), who is a former professor at Virginia Union University in Richmond and is now Dean of the School of the Arts at Indiana University. He has the distinction of being the first African American composer to write a choral work for a U.S. Presidential Inauguration, for Bill Clinton.
Without pause, Dr. Kline led into Sing a Mighty Song (1993) with its very important piano sections, between sung parts, played by Bobbie Kesler-Corleto. It was written by Daniel Gawthorp (b. 1949), who served as Composer in Residence for the Fairfax, Virginia Symphony Orchestra. Layers of sound built into a thrilling pyramid, stopping, only to start again, after a piano statement.
In 1971 Dr. Kline was a student at the University of Richmond and student assistant to Dr. James Erb (1926-2014) when he was completing his setting of Shenandoah by having the choir sing through his work-in-progress. Published in 1975, the song that is not about the river but the story of a native American chieftain has become a blockbuster hit for choirs everywhere. A more tenuous claim of a Virginia connection is that of Michael John Trotta (b. 1978) due to his brief 2014-2015 tenure at Virginia Wesleyan College. His song, And Peace Shall Guard You offered bell-like tones in sweet, lovely singing in a smooth-as-silk delivery of texts achieved by using a flat affect vocal range. This single song gave contrast to the wider expression of Crucifixion by our beloved local composer Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941) and currently Eminent Scholar and Professor of Music at ODU since 2000 when he came from Norfolk State University where he had taught composition. The dynamic news of Jesus' death spreading through the waiting throng was a powerful expression of the pathos of their loss.
The Mozart “Coronation” Mass is considered the finest of his masses for St. Peter Cathedral in Salzburg, and as with others, gives the soprano many lovely solo passages. Soprano Christina Bartholomew filled the modern, wooden-domed sanctuary with her glorious voice and was well-matched in quartets and duets by Logan Kennison's bass-baritone. Perhaps because of the miking, contralto Kelli Bly and tenor J. Gavin Harper were mostly inaudible. Dr. Kim's precise conducting made dramatic openings startling and powerful. The chorus sang beautifully and by the closing section the quartet of soloists had achieved a better balance. Even with a few intonation issues in the violins, Mozart's glorious music enfolded the capacity audience who responded with warm enthusiasm.