Central Ohio Symphony explores love, death


By Thomas K. Wolber - Special to The Gazette



After a rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the March concert of the Central Ohio Symphony began with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s overture to “Così fan tutte.” The opera buffa (comic opera) involves temptation, seduction, and love. Everybody does “it,” the title suggests. It is love that makes the world go round. Under Maestro Jaime Morales-Matos, the orchestra was able to reflect these turbulent urges well. The overture set the stage for the three arias that followed: “Juliette’s Waltz” from Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliette”; “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß” from Franz Lehár’s “Giuditta”; and “Sempre libera” from Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata.” Soprano Laura Portune, the soloist, has called the arias, which she sang in three different languages, “a tour de force.” They are indeed technically challenging, with lots of high notes, but Portune faced them with practiced mastery and supreme confidence. Her strong and pristine voice soared above the orchestra and filled every corner of the grand concert hall. In the Verdi aria, Portune was briefly joined by tenor Benjamin Bunsold, a 1995 OWU music graduate who sang the part of Alfredo. His full and expressive voice matched Portune’s coloratura soprano beautifully.

What the arias have in common is the passionate desire of their young protagonists to be free, to live, and to love as they please, while they are still young and impulsive. They sense that their youthful vitality will not last forever and that eventually a day of reckoning will come. Even the most beautiful flower is fated to wither and wilt some day. There is a bittersweet undertone to all three pieces. Love and death are intertwined in many operas, including the ones from which the arias are excerpted. Portune says Lehár’s “Meine Lippen” is her favorite. It is indeed a great tune full of fiery oriental rhythms and Spanish flamenco music. Giuditta freely admits that the hot blood of gypsies runs through her veins and that she was born to dance and make love. In some performances, “Giuditta” throws off her shoes and other trappings of civilization and starts to wildly dance and flirt without much inhibition. Portune did not resort to such drastic measures, but given the subject matter a few symbolic twirls would have been perfectly appropriate. She did take a few tentative dancing steps, however.

Gustav Mahler’s somber “Symphony No. 4” is equally ambivalent, with “Freund Hein” (“Friend Henry”) – a representation of death – never far away. Mahler was intimately familiar with death. The second movement contains a haunting “danse macabre.” The fourth movement is essentially one long symphonic song, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”), not coincidentally written in a happy major key. Once again sung radiantly by soprano Laura Portune, it describes the simple and joyous life of an innocent child who is now in heaven where it sings and dances all day long and gets to eat and drink whatever it wants. The hands of harpist James Predovich were gracefully dancing, too, and it is interesting to note that the harp – the quintessential angelic instrument – has the very last word in the symphony. The work is not a tragic or even dramatic one. Its tempo is slow and deliberate throughout. The composer seems to have made peace with death, an old familiar friend. He does not rebel against it. Instead, the mood is one of acceptance. Gounod’s Juliette sang “Je veux vivre” (“I Want to Live”), but perhaps dying is not so bad after all considering heaven’s many delights.

Mahler is difficult to perform, more so than Bruckner or Wagner for instance, because of constant shifts in tempo, volume, rhythm, color and mood. His music expresses many complex thoughts and emotions, some of them in conflict with each other. For example, Mahler’s symphonies are architecturally very complex structures, but he favors the bucolic, natural harmonic tones of the woodwind, brass and string instruments. However, the orchestra under Jaime Morales-Matos did an admirable job and delivered an interpretation that closely resembled the composer’s intentions. In the opinion of this reviewer, the quality of the performance was not far behind that of the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic and perhaps even equal to it. A few imprecise smudges here or there were quickly forgiven and forgotten.

The Middlefield Banking Company was the main sponsor of the Symphony’s March concert. Additional support came from the Ohio Arts Council, the City of Delaware, Ohio Wesleyan University, donors, subscribers and patrons. Thank you all for bringing high culture to Delaware and for making the city a place where the arts flourish. And let us not forget David S. Gray, once the president of OWU’s Board of Trustees, whose generosity more than a hundred years ago made the construction of Gray Chapel possible. His portrait hangs, largely ignored and forgotten, in the second-floor hallway of University Hall.

By Thomas K. Wolber

Special to The Gazette

Thomas K. Wolber, Ph.D., teaches foreign languages and literatures at Ohio Wesleyan University. He has an undergraduate degree in music from a German university, plays the piano, and is passionate about classical music. His email address is tkwolber@owu.edu.

Thomas K. Wolber, Ph.D., teaches foreign languages and literatures at Ohio Wesleyan University. He has an undergraduate degree in music from a German university, plays the piano, and is passionate about classical music. His email address is tkwolber@owu.edu.