Three cheers for the steady diet of Mahler we've been fed since Maestro Emmanuel Villaume's been in charge of the orchestral end of Spoleto. Between his crack Spoleto Festival Orchestra and our own cherished Charleston Symphony under David Stahl, we've heard just about all of Mahler's nine symphonies in Chucktown — save for the seventh and the eighth — over the past dozen years or so. Well, that's including this year's outing of his "heavenly" Symphony No. 4 in G Major.
This relatively serene piece can be thought of as the calm before the storm of Mahler's violent, nerve-wracking fifth symphony — the one that reamed out our psyches last year. And calm it is indeed, the whole thing having grown out of a lengthy pastoral poem from the German Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Magic Horn) — a collection of verse that inspired many of his orchestral songs. The simple folk-toned poem is a naïve and rustic view of heaven as seen through the eyes of a child. It has a simple directness and lack of grown-up artifice that's beyond charming.
The poem-setting — sung by a soprano soloist — makes up the entire fourth and final movement. This outing will feature the sweet voice of Monica Yunus, a Spoleto veteran who's also holding down a role in Gluck's L'Ile de Merlin this year. Mahler apparently wrote that one first, then used thematic snippets from it to build his first three movements. So the entire symphony — save for an energetic episode or two — has a kind of easy-going, gentle flow to it from start to finish. None of the usual hysterical outbursts and violent mood swings that made us want to run and hide during the fifth last year.
And that's quite the drastic turnaround for Mahler, at least in his symphonies. It's also his shortest symphony, and scored for the smallest orchestra. Much of the final movement's song is full of childish wonder, and the subject matter includes ordinary items that you wouldn't think of as being part of paradise — like green beans growing in a heavenly garden. Word to the wise: get there early enough to read the poem in the program notes beforehand; the music will mean much more to you.
But Mahler's not all we're in for. Also on the menu are two fabulous showpieces for big orchestra by two of Mahler's contemporaries. German master Richard Strauss wrote bunches of passionate tone poems early on — and one of them is Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, a meaty classic that musically recounts the misadventures of a legendary German trickster and buffoon who finally offends one powerful person too many and pays with his head. Then there's the Sorcerer's Apprentice, made famous by Mickey Mouse's big adventure with brooms in the Disney classic Fantasia. The delightful, yet sweeping, piece, by Frenchman and one-hit wonder Paul Dukas is one of its era's most brilliant examples of orchestration, full of magical effects to match the story that inspired it.
I've already tooted the SFO's horn in my Intermezzi preview (last issue) — but just let me remind you here that these are the absolute cream of America's young orchestral players. There are now former SFO players in many of the world's great orchestras. They're fully capable of performing the absolute dickens out of all these pieces. So just show up if you want to hear the finest, most passionate orchestral playing you're likely to ever hear this side of the Mason-Dixon line.
Festival Concert: Mahler's Symphony No. 4; tone poems by Strauss and Dukas • Spoleto Festival USA • $10-$65 • (1 hour 45 min.) • June 5 at 8 p.m. • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. • 579-3100