Elizabeth Bishop (mezzo-soprano)
UMS Choral Union
Michigan State University Children’s Choir
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 30 May, 2014
Venue: Orchestra Hall, Detroit, Michigan
Mahler’s pantheistic Third Symphony completes the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s 2013-14 Season, music director Leonard Slatkin conducting. The DSO was in stellar form in this the first of two performances, from magnificent horns launching the huge first movement to the silky and tender strings that bore aloft the Adagio finale. From the outset, in the Part 1 of the Symphony, Slatkin made it clear that the return of each season is inevitable, here Spring emerging from the slumber of Winter, the pacing forward-moving, the music vividly projected and detailed, Kenneth Thompkins’s trombone solos a stentorian summons to cue a fresh-faced vernal march-past signalling green shoots of recovery (with some sunny-side-up woodwind-playing) but not without anguish, pain and reflection, before a full riot of marching bands burst out (if not as cacophonous as Charles Ives’s in The Fourth of July), Slatkin in commendable control of good balance in music easy to vulgarise, something avoided here. With the return of the horns’ mighty entrée and a now-sated Thompkins, a real sense of joy flowed through the rest of this fleet-footed reading (32 minutes, quite swift).
With no intermission, nor should there be one, a few minutes’ breather was taken to allow the ladies and children of the choir to arrive before Part 2 (the remaining five movements) commenced, firstly a flowery gambol painting meadows and contentment, seductively turned, contrasted with more frolicsome episodes, nimbly executed, and all teasingly wound-down to the close. Animals come to the fore in the next movement – by the way, Mahler suppressed his original explicit movement-titles, but they give a clue – opening with cat-like tread, perky woodwinds joining in, and then a mix of the playful, furtive and rambunctious, before a calm oasis signalled by a faraway on-high posthorn solo, here a trumpet by the sound of it, if nicely distanced and smoothly played.
Elizabeth Bishop now entered – maybe, to avoid the feeling of ‘now it’s my turn’, she should have done so along with her chair and the choristers – for the darkest music of the Symphony, a setting of Nietzsche’s ‘Midnight Song’, a little wobbly at times and some may have missed the bird-like glissandos that other conductors have introduced for the contributions from oboe and cor anglais (English horn). Great contrast was then offered by the bells and bright voices of the next movement, here a little earnest – although didn’t Mahler ask for boys’ voices? – but the slow finale, well-timed in its attacca and perfectly paced, was compassionately played and sublime in expression – Slatkin now baton-less – not without growing pains and aching remembrances as it increased in ecstasy (for a few bars flautist David Buck lit the way) to journey’s end, a glorious golden-brass, timpani-underpinned processional, strings gleaming through.