The Clarksville-based Gateway Chamber Orchestra gave its first-ever performance in Nashville on Monday night at Second Presbyterian Church of Green Hills. Naturally, the ensemble hoped to make a good first impression. It actually came close to achieving transcendence.
For its debut, Gateway and its conductor, Gregory Wolynec, presented a chamber arrangement of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) for orchestra, mezzo soprano and tenor. This amazing work, composed in 1908-09, sets to music German translations of exotic Chinese poetry and is an intense meditation on mortality. No greater synthesis of symphony and song has ever been created.
Mahler originally scored the six-movement Das Lied for a 100-plus member orchestra. It came as no surprise, though, that his music worked so well as a chamber arrangement (Gateway used a transcription by Glen Cortese), since Mahler arranged his forces with such transparency, treating the orchestra as a collection of soloists. Every one of Gateway’s sections – winds, strings, brass and percussion – played with polish and precision. Wolynec, for his part, struck just the right balance between lyrical intimacy and symphonic drama.
Both soloists, mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz and tenor Jason Slayden, gave terrific performances. Buchholz was the concert’s big discovery. All evening, she sang with a feathery-soft voice that was gauzy in its middle register and luminous at the top – she often ended phrases with a glistening little vocal quiver that was truly a delight to hear. She brought an affecting sincerity to such solos as “The Lonely One in Autumn” and “Of Beauty.” In “The Farewell,” she all but stopped time, singing with heart-rending lyricism and ending with the most delicately soft (yet audible) sound imaginable.
Mahler surely had a heldentenor in mind for Das Lied – the maniacal power of the opening “The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow” would seem to demand nothing less – and in that respect Slayden seemed a bit too light-voiced for this piece. Yet he brought to the performance other qualities – an immaculate sense of line and lyrical expressiveness – that were immensely appealing. A dramatic singer, he sang his opening solo with urgency and “Of Youth” with immediacy and intimacy.
Gateway was founded in 2008 by faculty at Austin Peay State University, and its membership now consists of professors at the school along with professionals from the region – such top Nashville Symphony musicians as violinist Carolyn Wann Bailey, oboist Roger Wiesmeyer and cellist Michael Samis also play with the Clarksville ensemble.
For its Nashville debut, the Gateway Chamber Orchestra decided to show off its Gateway Chamber Choir, which is now completing its inaugural season under the direction of Douglas Rose. The concert opened with an a cappella performance of Chinese-American composer Chen Yi’s “Distance Can’t Keep Us Two Apart,” which was a nod to the Chinese poetry in Das Lied. The choir sang this song with nuance, a beautifully blended sound and with big contrasts between loud and soft singing. The group followed with two songs by long-time Austin Peay music professor (and former Nashville Symphony choral director) George Mabry. Both tunes, “Go Lovely Rose” and “My Love is like a Red, Red Rose,” were performed with affecting lyricism.
The Gateway Chamber Orchestra then appeared in selections of Viennese classics that were intended to get us in the mood for Mahler. The first song brought us to Vienna by way of Weimar in Franz Liszt’s über-romantic arrangement of Schubert’s “The Young Nun.” Buchholz joined the orchestra to give this work a dramatic reading. The choir gave a sumptuous account of Zemlinsky’s “Faith in Spring,” and Buchholz and the orchestra performed Schubert’s famous “The Trout” (arranged by Benjamin Britten) with sweet sensitivity.
In all, it was an auspicious debut for the Gateway Chamber Orchestra and Choir. I hope the group returns to Nashville, but I probably can’t wait that long. I suspect I’ll be making a few trips to Clarksville next season.