Oregon Symphony review: sins and goose bumps

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Opening night at the final classical concert of the Oregon Symphony season showcased two masterful works bursting with the drama and imagination that make composers Gustav Mahler and Kurt Weill especially popular today. Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D  and Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins were not popular in their own times and places, however. 

Mahler’s audiences at the premiere in Budapest in 1889 were confused and overtly put off by the unconventional work. The 29-year-old, who had been engaged in his conducting career for almost a decade, went on to make numerous changes until the formal publication in 1888, with the “final” version completed in 1896 (although tweaked by Mahler for years to come). The year it premiered, Mahler, born an Austro-Bohemian, also received the conducting post he had long coveted, the Vienna Hofoper (Vienna Opera). He balanced composing and conducting for the rest of his short life. 

Storm Large joined the Oregon Symphony for Weill’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ in 2012. Photo: John Rudoff.

Two generations later, Kurt Weill was experiencing tremendous success in the German Weimar (post World War I) culture as a composer of stage works. Born in Germany in 1900, his professional career blossomed in the 1920 – 1930 period. Though he composed several traditional “classical” works, which showed influences of Mahler and Stravinsky, Weill earned popularity for his politically and socially charged stage works, one-act opera, vocal music and musical theater.  

But by the time he completed his Seven Deadly Sins, the Weimar republic had collapsed, Hitler came to power, and Weill’s music was reviled in Nazi Germany. Mahler’s earlier music was also labeled degenerate and banned. Both composers were Jewish and subjected to the anti-Semitic social/political climate in their homelands. As Jews were not allowed to hold high positions in Vienna in 1889, Mahler “converted” to Roman Catholicism. 

Weill fled the country in 1933, taking his art to Paris, where Seven Deadly Sins was commissioned and premiered that year. The rebirth of Mahler’s music would come after World War II, aided by an American conductor named Bernstein. 

Miniseries of Sins

At Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, OSO conductor Carlos Kalmar placed the arguably “lighter” Weill Seven Deadly Sins first on the program. Is it any wonder that the Weill “7” is a contemporary sensation? It has all of the earmarks of a television miniseries. Imagine the story being pitched to a network producer:

“So, this girl, Anna from Germany is sent by her family to earn money to buy a little house. She goes to Los Angeles, Boston, Baltimore and Memphis, Philadelphia, Dallas. Her stock in trade is her body, her looks, her dance skills, little o’ this, little o’ that, you get the picture. So in each of seven cities, she engages in each of the Seven Deadly Sins. You know, the Greeks thought it up; it’s in the Bible, too. Pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth. Yeah, those. So, you get it, seven years, seven cities, seven sins. But here’s the knock out – there’s two of them. Yeah, two Annas. And they talk to each other. One a good girl, one – well – not. In her head? for real? Eight episodes and we never know. It’ll go viral. Who plays Anna? A Charlize Theron type. Thing is, she’s gotta sing, dance, needs the look. Hey, listen there’s this modern cabaret-like singer out there. Great name. Maybe you can get her…”

And, so they did. The Oregon Symphony brought Storm Large home for this weekend of Weill and with her the sparkling vocals of Hudson Shad, of New York City, appearing in this performance as a quartet. They play Anna’s family, who comment from afar as Anna travels on their behalf. Together they’ve performed this work over 60 times, all over the world.

In May, Ms. Large repeated her sinful septet with the OSO and Maestro Kalmar, following performances in 2012. The duo also joined to present it at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago in 2014. The work fits her perfectly, laying perfectly in her voice, showcasing her fine stage skills. Her voice is a perfect fit for both roles, with the vocals being a combination of chest/belt voice, and low alto.

The performance seemed perfectly contained, however, and it would be wonderful sometime to see her let loose in a more intimate or casual setting. By far the most exploited personality was Anna II, the lusty, gutsy wench who is over-the-top with angst and an afterburner of personality. 

One of the wonders of the role is that it can be sung by an opera star or a cabaret singer. Kurt Weill had his wife, actress and dramatic singer, Lotte Lenya, in mind as one of the Annas (originally a two-woman role). Lenya kept the work in the public eye after Weill’s death, also bringing Weill’s song “Mack the Knife” from Three Penny Opera to fame before Bobby Darin covered it.

Hudson Shad were a pleasure. They are fashioned after the German male singing ensemble Comedian Harmonists who, like Weill himself, flourished during the Weimar period and disbanded under budding Nazi tyranny. Hudson Shad could have played it with more saucy satire, but they did honor to Weill, portraying Anna’s father, mother and brothers, in the ensemble and solo parts.

Storm Large and Hudson Shad performed Weill with the Oregon Symphony in 2012.

Balance of sound was an issue with the family quartet and the orchestra. With the acoustic sound of the orchestra swirling around the hall, it won out over the focused speaker production from the amped male vocal quartet. It affected the clarity of the lyrics and in this work that is a great loss. The libretto of celebrated lyricist/playwright Bertolt Brecht is worth every word, even in the English translation.

The orchestra played expertly. The work is not a light, airy stroll for the instruments. The orchestra in this 35-ish-minute work has as complex a personality as Anna. Quick turns of character, meter, color were virtually seamless. 

Weill in 1932. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild

Kurt Weill would leave Paris in 1935 and spend the rest of his life in America. Seven Deadly Sins would receive its first American performance by the New York Philharmonic in the 1993-94 season, with Kurt Masur on the podium and Hudson Shad — yes, the very ones, portraying Anna’s family. But Weill had died long before that, of a heart attack in 1950, at age 50. He left a legacy that greatly influenced musical theater in America. Right, Anna; yes, Anna.

Family Reunion

Gustav Mahler came to America in 1908 to debut at the Metropolitan Opera, aided by assistant Arturo Toscanini. In 1909 he conducted the New York Symphony Orchestra (which the next year re-formed as the New York Philharmonic) in the American premiere of his first symphony. It would be the last time he conducted his work. In 1911, his health deteriorating, he returned to Vienna and died of heart defect complications months before his 50th birthday. 

For some works, an informed audience will wait with breathless anticipation for that one section of the work which stirs them to a tip to toe emotional climax. The last five minutes of the almost 20 minute fourth (final) movement is regal, brassy, with the rumbling timpani driving the huge forces toward the hair-raising ending – whew – goose bumps. It almost makes one forget how long it took to get there.

The first movement, especially, could stand alone as a short symphonic tone poem. In the first two performances, Mahler gave the work this designation. The style, music which represents a non-musical entity (nature, character, locale) was gaining interest; Liszt and Mahler’s countryman Richard Strauss certainly had some success in the genre. But the audience was cool. Critics were unimpressed; influential yet intensely disliked critic Eduard Hanslick, poor fellow, call it “the kind of music which for me is not music.” 

Mahler would work for the next decade to make the symphony  more accepted. Would that he could see reactions from today’s audiences. His music was brought back into the foreground of great symphonic literature by Leonard Bernstein, who devoted an entire Young People’s Concert to the composer.  

Who Is Gustav Mahler – Young People’s Concert – Bernstein & NY Philharmonic, 1960.

The orchestra was mostly successful in navigating the score, although the multi-voiced woodwinds (4 flutes; 4 oboes; 4 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 7 horns) had some nervous entrances on this opening night. The strings exhibited more precision.

In the second movement, a Viennese waltz, the steady 1-2-3 of the basses against a dance step hesitation in the upper strings left an uneasy feeling throughout these passages. It was a good idea not ideally executed.

Movement three is a parody piece, based on the Frere Jacques theme. It is presented in minor mode – a solemn funereal countenance – but morphs at times, particularly when the clarinet breaks free, into a nonchalant klezmer-like sound. There just might be some true brilliance to this movement. If it doesn’t appeal at first, give it a chance. The Oregon Symphony played this movement very well so when they rebroadcast this live performance, you can try it again.

Gustav Mahler

Conductor Carlos Kalmar was in his element in both pieces. He managed the three forces (four if you count Anna as two) in the Weill, cueing off of Ms. Large as he cued the myriad instrumental segments. He displays absolute mastery and economy of gesture, helping to enliven the music with a variety of visual cues translated by the orchestra into sonic reality. He brought the season to a close with a tempo-perfect movement four of the Mahler Symphony No. 1.

The fourth movement is like a family reunion that doesn’t know when to call it quits. Previous melodies reappear several times over like old family stories. A coda is signaled, then hovers at the exit with final memories. When it finally gets going, it takes off and, well, those aforementioned goose bumps. 

Conductor and Mahler champion Kenneth Wood of the Colorado MahlerFest recently blogged an amusing tale of this iconic finale and ever-evolving work. 

The Oregon Symphony programming these two composers together is a historicist’s delight.  Weill and Mahler might have enjoyed each other’s company in life; their pairing on the stage was magical. Right Anna?  Yes, Anna.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer.

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