Seattle Symphony’s Masterworks with Mahler and Berlioz

Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero leads the Seattle Symphony. Photo by Carlin Ma

For the opening concert of the Seattle Symphony’s 2017-’18 Masterworks season, music director Ludovic Morlot programmed works by two composers dear to his heart, Hector Berlioz and Gustav Mahler, both misunderstood mavericks in their own time, presented here in two musically contrasting works.

In 1829, when he was only 26, Berlioz composed his cantata “La mort de Cleopatre—Scene lyrique” for mezzo-soprano, with a fairly small orchestra and set to words by Pierre-Ange Vieillard. His hallmark individuality doesn’t appear until late in the second section when suddenly the unmistakable harmonies and progressions of Berlioz arrive. Today we might not think his music so unusual, but 1829 was only a couple of years after Beethoven’s death, and one can see how Berlioz’s unconventional sounds might have been bewildering.

For lasd weekend’s performance, Costa Rican conductor Giancarlo Guerrero replaced an injured Morlot, giving the works the colorful interpretations they demand. Christianne Stotijn sang “Cleopatre.” At first her portrayal didn’t have Cleopatre’s spine, but she became progressively more dramatic in the role, more decisive as the queen fulfills her intention to kill herself rather than submit to imprisonment and slavery. Stotijn’s heavy vibrato dominated her singing, lessening the impact of the music in the first two sections, but later, she moderated it, giving far more effective expression to Cleopatre’s emotions. Guerrero brought out the swings in the music, from chilling moments to excited frenzy, wild chords and soft repetition, dying away to nothing at the end.

While “Cleopatre” is only 20 minutes long, Mahler’s Symphony No 2, the “Resurrection,” takes a mammoth 80 minutes and requires twice the orchestral forces. And while “Cleopatre” is about accepting death, the Mahler is about the promise of life after death.

Guerrero did a fine job of maintaining the intent of this massive work, giving it the overarching shape it demands. He’s dynamic on the podium, and drew colossal climaxes with percussion clashes and plenty of sound and fury, and dynamic extremes with sudden silent pauses, letting the music take a breath. At times it was ominous, portentous, martial, chaotic, and then soothing, gentle, restful. The Seattle Symphony Chorale had a small but vital role in adding yet another timbre towards the dramatic end, as did Stotijn and soprano Malin Christensson, and organist Joseph Adam. The orchestra gave Guerrero everything it had, creating a memorable performance all round.