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A Symphonic Song Feast

Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy

The BPO pairs Mahler and Barber masterpieces

For the next pair of Buffalo Philharmonic concerts this Saturday evening at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 2:30pm, BPO music director JoAnn Falletta returns to the podium to conduct a program that local classical music lovers of the symphonic vocal repertoire will not want to miss. Heidi Grant Murphy will be the featured soprano in the final, angelically inspired movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. She will also sing Knoxville: Summer of 1915, American composer Samuel Barber’s exquisitely evocative invocation of the world of his own childhood, a world that has receded even further into the misty realms of the past since its 1947 debut. Barber set the text of the 1938 short prose poem by his exact contemporary, the future Pulitzer Prize winner James Agee, and like Mahler’s symphony the work manages to magically capture the world of a child.

While any performance of Maher’s fourth is a very welcome occasion, in the 1960s and 1970s BPO performances of the work featured the most highly acclaimed sopranos on the national scene, such as Roberta Peters and Frederica von Stade, who also were featured in other symphonic vocal selections, typically from either Mozart or Richard Strauss, on the same program.

Regrettably, for the previous three BPO performances of the work, dating back to 1993, the programs did not include any other vocal work, depriving the audience of the rare opportunity to hear national class singers in a variety of roles.

All is forgiven, however, by the BPO’s creatively innovative programming for this weekend’s concerts. The orchestra is bringing Heidi Grant Murphy, one of America’s currently favorite sopranos to town, both for the Mahler, and for what will be, astonishingly, the first ever Kleinhans classical series performance of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915.

The most programmed Mahler symphonies worldwide are his first and fourth with the overriding reason being the fact that they are both by far the most manageable of the composer’s symphonies in terms of length, while the fourth symphony is the most manageable in terms of orchestration, being scored without either trombones or tuba.

Mahler originally planned to use his song “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”) as the conclusion of his monumental Symphony No. 3, and he had already made use of some of the song’s melodic material in that work’s fifth movement, when a few years later he decided to instead make the song the focus of the final movement of his Symphony No. 4. As the very busy director of the Vienna Court Opera, Mahler had to confine his composing to his summer vacations in the Austrian countryside. He began his fourth symphony during the summer of 1900, but it turned out to be a disastrous, very wet and noisy vacation for the composer, who was hypersensitive to any external sounds, including even natural sounds, so it was only at the very end of his stay that he was able to begin to compose feverishly, before putting the score away until the next summer. Luckily, Mahler’s musical thoughts “had been working unconsciously and unknown to him” and he was able to complete the symphony in the record time of three weeks.

Surprisingly to modern listeners, the new symphony was roundly booed at its Munich premier and generally rejected at first by audiences who had expected another monumental work like Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. Critics felt that its “innocence and naivety could only be more posturing on his part, an additional affectation, if not an example of deliberate mystification.” Ironically, the fourth ultimately became the first Mahler symphony to gain a permanent place in the international symphonic repertoire.

The program opens with The Wasps Overture by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. He composed his incidental music for The Wasps to accompany the 1909 production of Aristophanes’s ancient Greek comedy of the same name by the Cambridge Greek Play committee. The undergraduates at his alma mater, Cambridge University, had been putting on an ancient Greek play every three years since 1882 in the original ancient Greek, a tradition that has continued until the present day. It was slightly comforting to at least discover that even way back then, during an era where every graduate at an English university had studied Greek and Latin, it was accepted that most of the audience were not sufficiently fluent in Greek to follow the play, and a printed English translation was provided; nowadays the still popular productions use English surtitles. The “Wasps” of the play’s title refers to the jurors at an ancient Athenian trial, and since they usually numbered 501, the Overture to Vaughan Williams’ score effectively uses a musical version of onomatopoeia to suggest the hubbub of such a large number of jurors debating the merits of a court case.

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