On Saturday, January 18, in Newark’s Prudential Hall, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO), performed Mahler’s colossal symphony for tenor, alto and symphony orchestra, “Das Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth). Maestro Jacques Lacombe led the orchestral forces, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop and tenor Russell Thomas in this hour-long work, a series of six orchestral songs that alternate between the two soloists.
Mahler set to colourful Oriental music six Chinese poems translated to German. The tenor goes first, and “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery) can test the mettle of the most gifted heldentenor, a test that Russell Thomas passed with flying colours. Though most of the song is sung at high volume, the last line of three verses, “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist das Tod” (Life is as dark as death is), provides welcome respite for singer and listener alike. The tenor exploited these phrases producing a goose-bump effect, as they are either sung with sudden softness or are followed by sublimely ethereal orchestral phrases.
The mezzo-soprano ends the cycle with “Der Abschied” (The parting, or, farewell), a 30-minute movement in three sections, each comprised of alternating recitative and song, separated by lush orchestral interludes. Elizabeth Bishop delivered these with sedate calm and a rich beautiful tone, making time seem to stand still. The 30 minutes went by much too quickly.
A South Carolina native who now lives outside Washington, D.C., Elizabeth Bishop wore a deep blue gown with bolero skirting, bodice and sleeves of matching lace and sequins, and a plunging neckline totally devoid of bling. Dangling diamonds subtly graced the ears. Hailing from Miami, Russell Thomas, now an Atlanta resident, wore a vested black tux and a wingtip shirt open at the collar.
Maestro Jacques Lacombe maintained tension in the dramatic orchestral passages without covering the vocalists, and gently supported them in quieter moments. The massive wall of sound that is “Das Lied” engulfed the audience, and its whispered conclusion produced in the audience the sound of the silence of a crowd sitting still and listening attentively. Another deserved standing ovation came following a complete silence lasting about ten seconds.
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