Mainly Mozart Festival Brings Mahler to The Conrad

Considering the hostile reception from both audiences and critics to Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony at the turn of the last century, it is ironic that Mahler’s Fourth is now considered his most accessible and popular symphonic work. And most historians agree that only when American symphony orchestras began to program Mahler’s Fourth Symphony after World War II were the rest of his ten symphonies gradually accepted into the canon of American orchestras’ standard repertory.

Soprano Chelsea Guo & Michael Francis with Mainly Mozart musicians [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

Tuesday at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, San Diego’s annual Mainly Mozart summer festival presented Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in a chamber ensemble version edited by Klaus Simon in 2007. Mainly Mozart Music Director Michael Francis conducted soprano Chelsea Guo and 16 festival instrumentalists in this chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth: a string quintet, seven winds, and two each of percussion and keyboards.

As a Mahler aficionado accustomed to Mahler’s orchestral version of the Fourth, I was immediately struck by the glowing transparency of this reduced chamber instrumentation. Favorite themes leaped out with both a vibrant immediacy and a warm glow in the sonic intimacy of the Baker-Baum Concert Hall: from Abel Pereira’s resonant horn calls, to DeMarre McGill’s scintillating flute volleys, to Robert Demaine’s incredibly soulful cello flights and Frank Rosenwein’s ethereal oboe strains. The downside of this chamber version: in spite of the excellence of the string quintet headed by concertmaster Martin Chalifour, five strings could never pull off Mahler’s glorious crescendos that suddenly climax his lengthy melodic wayfaring.

Michael Francis conducted a well-considered, beautifully shaped account of the symphony, giving ample space for Mahler’s cornucopia of themes to unfold with languid ease–as the composer instructed–while maintaining a clear sense of direction and purpose. I was transfixed by the incandescent shimmer of the strings–especially cellist Demaine–in the opening of the third movement, the poco Adagio, when time appeared to stop at such sublime concord.

The appearance of soprano Chelsea Guo in the Fourth’s final movement, however, erased my every cavil about the chamber arrangement. With consummate poise, Guo communicated the ecstatic wonder of the movement’s poetry at every turn of its quirky, endearing text. Her lithe soprano uplifted every graceful phrase with ingratiating sonic purity, and she gave the German text of “Das himmlische Leben”  (“Heavenly Life”)  a delicate accent that few singers are able to discover. I simply did not want Guo to stop–she gave us everything Mahler intended in his incomparable finale.

This concert was presented by Mainly Mozart at La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. 

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