The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra's "Sagas" concert at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center's Symphony Hall on Saturday night offered a double dose of works by Jean Sibelius and Richard Strauss. But on an evening that ended with a merry prankster meeting his maker, it was the singing of guest soprano Christine Brewer that stood out.
The opening piece, "Andante Festivo," served as a reminder that Sibelius was a violinist himself. The strings are given full voice, one melody flowing into another, sometimes shifting suddenly into minor keys. At the end the timpani joined in to add to the piece's final flourish.
The evening marked the 99th time that Brewer has performed Strauss's "Four Last Songs." The first three set poems of Hermann Hesse to music, while the fourth, by Joseph von Eichendorff, had a special meaning for the composer at the end of his life.
Brewer's voice soared above the wave of strings in "Frühling" ("Spring"), the lyrics establishing the common denominator of the four songs: serenity in the face of eternity. The shimmering strings in "September" capturing the death of summer, and we could hear the birds in the forest. The song explored the lower range of Brewer's voice while a plaintive horn signaled the end of summer.
"Beim Schlafengehen" ("When falling asleep") was the highlight of the four songs, the tenderness of Brewer's singing rising to a level of grandeur. Her forte is an exquisite shift in tone and volume from one word to the next as she brings the lyrics to life. After the long last chord there was an immediate burst of applause from the audience.
The long, lush opening sequence of "Im Abendrot" ("At sunset"), set up another virtuoso display of Brewer's phrasing. This time the drawn out last notes were met by a extended silence before the avalanche of applause.
After intermission we were treated to the Sibelius tone poem "En saga" ("A fairy tale"), a fun piece with some deliciously quirky elements: At one point the string section was solemnly sawing away at their instruments. While Sibelius refrained from even hinting that there was a specific narrative being played out, there was a sense of an epic quest playing out, apparently ending with the hero's death in old age.
For the finale conductor Dirk Meyer brought out the beloved Strauss tone poem, "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks." The narrative action is easier to follow this time around because of the recurring twin themes: the horns that represent Till's arrival upon the scene and the clarinet that signals the trickster in action.
Other instruments represent Till's targets: the violas the pompous clergymen, the first violins the young girls, and the bassoons get to be the stuffy scholars. You can easily imagine Till stalking his victims as fairly respectable musical themes inevitably give way to musical merriment and mischief.
An ominous snare drum signals Till reaching the end of a rope as the prankster meets his fate. However, his mischievous spirit still sounds from beyond the grave.
The DSSO returns Feb. 3 with "Revelations," the next installment of the Beethoven Project with the "Pastoral" 6th Symphony. Guest pianist Spencer Myer will be the soloist for Manuel de Falla's "Nights in the Gardens of Spain" and the evening will also feature Béla Bartók's "Rumanian Folk Dances."