by Donald Rosenberg
THE PLAIN DEALER
All hail Alma Mahler, who married a composer (Gustav Mahler), an architect (Walter Gropius) and a writer (Franz Werfel), and who is immortalized in Tom Lehrer's mirthful song, "Alma."
Lightening up Saturday at Masonic Auditorium after a meaty program with Red (an orchestra) revolving around Gustav, artistic director and conductor Jonathan Sheffer sat at the piano to sing and play Lehrer's witty ditty.
We can feel empathy for "Gustav and Walter and Franz," as the lyric goes, while thanking the gods that Alma lived such a colorful and interesting life.
And we can be grateful to Sheffer and Red for opening their fourth season with such a compelling program, "In Mahler's Shadow." Along with music, the concert featured now-familiar Red commodities as actors and theatrical effects. Not everything worked, but Sheffer's ability to tie so many elements into a coherent package made the evening a real event.
Sheffer's premise focused on Gustav Mahler's widespread influence. Most of the night's pieces were chamber versions of famous works orchestrated for a private Viennese performance society by Arnold Schoenberg, a Mahler acolyte who would become a musical revolutionary in his own right.
But Mahler also was represented as intolerant husband of Alma Schindler, who reluctantly agreed to give up her composing career for marriage. At least we have a handful of Alma's works, including the six songs Sheffer and company presented.
These lustrous pieces in full Romantic bloom were sung with expressive urgency by mezzo-soprano Linda Pavelka, who placed her music in a crib and moved to a tree-bedecked stage to convey the songs' simmering emotions. Actors Scott Plate and Alicia Kahn played Gustav and Alma, vividly acting out their courtship and artistic struggle through letters.
Sheffer's orchestrations of three of Alma's songs were expert counterparts to Schoenberg's arrangements of Johann Strauss II's "Emperor Waltz" and Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." The Strauss sounded lilting and intimate, the Debussy rigid and driven, aside from Mary Kay Ferguson's limpid flute solo.
Gustav himself inspired the night's most radical performance, a setting of "Songs of a Wayfarer" with the soloist as alcoholic and drug addict. Gregory Keller's staging placed the songs in contemporary society, with two stages far apart featuring the lovelorn narrator and his lost paramour watching television. The woman takes another lover. The narrator prepares to snort cocaine.
The approach tended to distract from, rather than illuminate, the texts. But give Keller, Sheffer and the superbly communicative baritone, David Adam Moore, credit for tackling Mahler with newfangled conviction. That's what Red is all about. Even Alma would hail this orchestra's intrepid spirit.