Review: Ottawa Symphony tribute to Forrester scores with performances of Mahler, Shore

The Ottawa Symphony Orchestra.

The late contralto Maureen Forrester was as fierce a champion of new Canadian music as she was a peerless Mahler interpreter. Alain Trudel and the Ottawa Symphony paid tribute to those two facets of Forrester’s artistry — the classicist and the pioneer — at their first Southam Hall appearance of the season on Monday night.

The program, a repeat of an October Toronto Symphony concert, was a rare opportunity for the local audience to hear Mahler’s original, enormous orchestration of Das Lied von der Erde (NACO has performed Schoenberg’s arrangement for leaner forces, and even then not in many seasons). Trudel has been methodically cycling through Mahler’s catalogue with the OSO and Ottawa University Orchestra. His concept of the composer is fresh and daring rather than reverential, with a judicious focus on the smaller, chamber music-like subdivisions within all that mass. It was a shame to see so many empty seats; outside of the popular choral works like Messiah, vocal music continues to be a tougher sell here.

The evening began with the Ottawa premiere of L’Aube, Howard Shore’s new song cycle written for Canada 150. It’s pleasant enough — that sticky word accessible comes to mind — but on first hearing, there’s no great contrast between the five movements, and no standout thematic material either. A gentle lyricism flows through the piece, more suggestive than literal, and while we’re far from the dramatic bombast of his Tolkien film scores, the composer’s signature noble low horn flourishes glint now and then through the haze. The third movement, with its thickly braided string lines, presented the most interest.

However, the score is hampered by the mediocre poetry of Shore’s wife, Elizabeth Cotnoir, who writes about nature in schoolgirlish, New Agey clichés (“The sun rises and sets, as does the moon.”) Shore also has little feel for the natural rhythms of the French language: the piece is full of unnatural inflections: accents on the wrong syllables, silent letters sounded out and vice versa.

Text aside, L’Aube offered a flattering setting for Susan Platts’ patrician mezzo, with its attractively veiled, cool platinum cast. Platts sings with old-fashioned dignity, emotional restraint and beautiful sense of line. It’s not an imposing voice, but it’s intensely communicative, and in the Mahler her performance was deeply vulnerable and poignant.

Platt’s Von der Schönheit was a masterful piece of musical storytelling, expressive and painterly. Der Abschied was expertly paced, controlled yet free, soaring from bitter melancholy to the dreamy, shimmering consolation of the final “Ewig, ewig”.

Young Canadian tenor Owen McCausland did a cracking job as a last-minute replacement for John MacMaster. He has a bright, ringing, enchantingly coloured voice, with a wonderfully secure top, although not quite carrying enough weight to win against the huge orchestration in the opening Trinklied. He’s sharply attentive to the nuances of the poetry, and his performance was alert and thoroughly engaged.

In Mahler, Trudel favours faster tempi — the composer’s mania rather than his depression — and likes to highlight the play of textures and colours instead of solid bulk. He placed his eight double basses on risers at the centre rear of the orchestra. When they came in with the bassoons on those basement-level, pulsing notes in Der Abschied, the effect was geological.

There were impressive, virtuoso turns by oboist Susan Morris — her long, plangent solo in the last movement was like a wail from the underworld — flutist Jeffrey Miller, principal cello Thaddeus Morden, bassoonist Ben Glossop and principal horn Nigel Bell. Yes, the tuning in the strings continues to be inconsistent, and the overall sound will probably never have that decadent, Viennese lushness, but Trudel and the players can be very proud of what they’re able to achieve in this magnificent repertoire.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.