Tenor Russell Thomas
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Review: Mahler's The Song of the Earth | Dallas Symphony Orchestra | Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center

Music for the Planet

The Dallas Symphony starts off the year brilliantly with Mahler's cycle The Song of the Earth, plus Mozart 38.

published Saturday, January 12, 2019

Photo: Kristina Choe Jacinth
Mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor
Photo: Verismo Communications
Tenor Russell Thomas


Dallas — This weekend’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra concerts are advertised as “Mozart Symphony No. 38 and Mahler,” a case of burying the lede, or the Lied, if ever there was one.

For the Mahler is his song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), a moving homage to life’s evanescence via settings of German translations of Chinese Tang Dynasty poetry. This hour-long-plus cycle of just six songs is not performed particularly often; the DSO last played it in 2001, and Thursday evening was my first experience of hearing it live. In the DSO’s hands, under conductor Donald Runnicles and with soloists Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano, and Russell Thomas, tenor, the music-making was truly special.

Indeed, the entire evening was notable—the DSO has not, historically, excelled in its interpretations of Mozart, but under Runnicles’ baton, the Symphony No. 38, “Prague,” was most excellent, despite Runnicles’ rather freewheeling conducting patterns. Runnicles used a fairly large orchestra here, and playing Mozart well requires exceptionally precise ensemble work, a task made more difficult with larger string sections. Still, the DSO, in contemporary parlance, nailed it. This was a lively performance, with crisp playing in the strings—there is some tricky writing here. The violins have little descending scales in the third movement that were so thrillingly precise, I felt like I’d just watched Mirai Nagasu nail her triple axel.

Sidebar: a few years ago, I was at a DSO family concert at the Meyerson. A small boy was so caught up in the performance, Beethoven I think it was, that he shouted “YES!” and pumped his fist at a particularly climactic moment. His mother shushed him, which is regrettable, really. It was the purest, most honest reaction I’ve seen at a classical concert in ages. And kid, last night during the third movement of the “Prague” symphony, I was right there with you. It seems a shame that in a world where audiences provide standing ovations for nearly any old thing, we’re discouraged from the occasional enthusiastic fist pump.

And that was just the Mozart.

The Mahler’s six songs are divided evenly between the tenor and the alto (or mezzo-soprano, in this case), with tenor Thomas singing the odd-numbered songs and mezzo O’Connor the even. I initially wasn’t sure about Thomas’ voice for these songs—its timbre is rich, but unusually dark for a tenor, which means that it’s difficult for a large, Mahler-sized orchestra not to overbalance it. However, by the last of his three songs, either my ear or the orchestra had adjusted. O’Connor’s voice is powerful and emotive, ideal for this repertoire. Orchestral solos were numerous and generally outstanding. Concertmaster Alex Kerr, Principal Cello Chris Adkins, Principal Flute David Buck, Principal Oboe Erin Hannigan, and Principal Horn David Cooper were all notable, as was violist Tom Demer, nimbly doubling on mandolin.

O’Connor’s photo adorns the publicity materials for this concert, but I do wish the DSO had included Thomas’ photo as well—his role is as significant as hers, and since he is a person of color, it was a missed opportunity for more potential audience members to see their own faces mirrored in the musicians’.

There’s no concert Saturday, so Sunday is your only remaining opportunity to hear this program. I strongly recommend it. Thanks For Reading

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Music for the Planet
The Dallas Symphony starts off the year brilliantly with Mahler's cycle The Song of the Earth, plus Mozart 38.
by J. Robin Coffelt

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