Marc Neikrug’s A Song by Mahler – Jennifer Johnson Cano, Ryan Bradford, David Shifrin and the FLUX Quartet 

Marc Neikrug
A Song by Mahler [New York premiere]

Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo-soprano) & Ryan Bradford (baritone)

David Shifrin (clarinet)

FLUX Quartet [Tom Chiu & Conrad Harris (violins), Max Mandel (viola)& Felix Fan (cello)]

Douglas Fitch – Production
Nicholas Houfek – Lighting

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 17 February, 2022
Venue: Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, Lincoln Center, New York City

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center continues its New Milestones series with Marc Neikrug’s 2018 A Song by Mahler, which had its world premiere at Chamber Music Northwest’s 2021 Summer Festival in Portland, Oregon. The eighty-minute work explores the nature of love as it follows a celebrated concertizing singer as she and her husband, who is also her coach-accompanist, are forced to deal with a terrifying reality when she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. 

‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (If You Love for the Sake of Beauty), one of Mahler’s Rückert-Liederis at the heart of the work. At the beginning of the story, the diva performs the setting which serves as her character’s trademark encore. As the action progresses, we hear snippets of Mahler’s refrain as we witness the heroine succumb to her disease, and the song serves as a symbol of the transcendent power of music in the most devastating circumstances.

Jennifer Johnson Cano is intensely ardent, arrogant and brave. With her commanding stage presence and dusky, arresting mezzo-soprano, she is exceptionally well cast. She intones Mahler’s melodies stunningly, and her keen dramatic skills inhabit every moment of her performance and every aspect of her multifaceted character. 

Ryan Bradford skillfully navigates the role of the singer’s husband who remembers their life and love, and through whose eyes we witness her withdrawal from reality and from him. A sensitive actor and singer, he poignantly recounts his wife’s torturous mental decline, as well as his own anxiety and changing emotions as their relationship becomes increasingly strained. 

Marc Neikrug’s libretto employs speech and singing, and he takes a unique approach to the relationship between the two. When dialogue is casual, the spoken text is rhythmically synchronized with the music and acted as in a play. In more emotionally charged situations, where speaking might not suffice, the words are sung. Cano and Bradford skillfully manage this unusual demand.

Neikrug’s expressionistic score, brilliantly performed by the FLUX Quartet and David Shifrin, employs a Schoenberg-like fluctuating tonality that follows the evolution of the couple’s relationship and perfectly reflects the wide-range of emotions permeating their story. Among the many impressive interludes are cellist Felix Fan’s heartfelt opening solo and Shifrin’s haunting flights on clarinet.

Douglas Fitch’s inventive and economical set consists of two wooden frames. One serves as a screen onto which projected video images summon up a concert hall, the singers’ home, a doctor’s waiting room, and other locations. The other, in the shape of a giant stave, frames the chamber ensemble seated at the back of the stage. Nicholas Houfek’s quickly-changing lighting designs most effectively suggest the emotionally charged atmosphere of Neikrug’s profoundly moving drama.

A video of this performance can be streamed at www.chambermusicsociety.orgbeginning March 2 at 7:30 p.m. ET and will be on demand for one week.

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