By Sheila Abrams
The Nov. 13 concert by the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey, held in Dolan Performance Hall on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Madison, was like a flood of tears bracketed by two great big smiles. The tears were connected to the darkly beautiful Songs of a Wayfarer, by Gustav Mahler, sung by the Danish mezzo-soprano, Hanne Ladefoged-Dollase.
As Maestro Robert Butts pointed out, if it’s Mahler, it’s going to be depressing. But also uplifting, because the music is so beautiful. The composer, one of the earliest modernists, seems to have been much inclined to the sorrowful. This cycle of four lieder (art songs) was Mahler’s first, written while he was nursing a broken heart over an ill-fated romance with a soprano. He wrote the words himself, though some were inspired by German folk ballads.
Mahler was one of the great masters of the lied and wrote many subsequently. Though the texts of his songs are frequently depressing, as with these, the musical scores are exquisite—rich with melody and color. The deep velvety tones of Ladefoged-Dollase are the perfect medium for Mahler’s music.
It seems as though Butts planned the program to be sure the audience was in a happy mood when it first encountered the Mahler songs. The concert began with Mozart’s gorgeously playful overture to the opera, Cosi FanTutte. Sometimes loosely translated as Women Are Like That, it is a romantic comedy, first performed in 1790, just a year before the composer’s death. The overture is a lively and melodic piece.
Having touched on classicism (Mozart) and modernism (Mahler), it was only appropriate that this versatile orchestra should complete its orchestral journey with a piece of absolutely gorgeous romantic music, the Symphony No. 5 by Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
This is a majestic symphony with a persistent theme, stated in the first movement and developed through the rest of the work. The brass section has a particular importance, stating the main theme in its many incarnations. Dark and ponderous in its introduction, it morphs until, by the ending, it is triumphant.
During World War II, it was associated with the courage of the Russian people during the Seige of Leningrad. It has enjoyed a lot of popularity, some of it to the dismay of music purists, as its themes have been used in movies, popular songs and even commercial jingles. But on Sunday, its majesty was evident, as Butts, a conductor who brings great passion to the music, brought the best out of this very fine orchestra.
An interesting historic peculiarity of this program is that Tchaikovsky’s work, firmly in the tradition of romanticism, was composed in 1888; while Mahler’s modernist song cycle was composed a few years earlier, in 1884-85. Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 and died in 1893. Mahler was born in 1860 and died in 1911.