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NSO Explores Worlds Apart in Mahler, Glass

Friday, January 21, 2005; Page C09

At last night's National Symphony Orchestra concert, conductor Leonard Slatkin paired works by two composers a universe apart: the post-romantic bohemian Austrian Gustav Mahler and the American experimentalist Philip Glass. The latter was in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for the world premiere of his Symphony No. 7, the "Toltec." Commissioned by the NSO last year for Slatkin's 60th birthday -- with support from the John and June Hechinger Fund -- it is the first Glass the orchestra has performed.

The symphony was followed after intermission by Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (The Boy's Magic Horn). Despite the century and the cultural divide between the Glass and Mahler pieces, both works explore a mammoth orchestra's broad timbral possibilities. Each speaks a language that was canon-busting for its day. Both move in shifting sonorities and textures to heighten expression -- Mahler's approach exuding Weltschmerz both personal and universal, Glass's a more sensual appeal.

Scored for orchestra, piano, organ and chorus, Glass's 37-minute Seventh makes spare use of traditional harmonic and melodic development. In its three thematically linked movements ("The Corn," "The Sacred Root" and "The Blue Deer"), brief note-clusters constantly expand, retract, recombine and recur percussively -- all signature Glass techniques.

Slatkin guided the NSO and the Master Chorale of Washington (prepared by Donald McCullough) through a rather disappointing performance of the "Toltec," the orchestra sounding on the tired side and the singers -- though prepared, and precise in articulation -- unable to rescue their syllabic "Toltec" chanting from banality. The symphony -- like the earlier "Low" Symphony and "Heroes" -- seems refashioned from Glass's old cloth, with perpetually drumming rhythms in trancelike stasis.

German baritone Matthias Goerne sang 11 of Mahler's "Wunderhorn" lieder, based on German poems collected two centuries ago by the literary circle that produced the Grimms' fairy tales. Goerne went to the heart of the Mahler, making every song an artwork as he soared ravishingly above the orchestra. He re-created the music's underlying aura of the folklike and its soul-searching depth, never paling as he coated Mahler's evocative psychodrama with bittersweet overtones and ringing pungency. And he had a legato to kill, bounding throughout his range with no perceptible breaks.

The NSO players met Goerne's poignant account with a knife-edged tang and strong doses of woodwinds, brass and percussion recalling the military soundscape of Mahler's youth.

The concert will be repeated tonight and tomorrow.

-- Cecelia Porter

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