An evening with the MSO and Thomas Hampson singing Mahler: a music review by Ron Jontof-Hutter

June 9, 2018 by Ron Jontof-Hutter
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The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presented a more unusual type of program consisting of three tone poems and a song cycle rather than the traditional overture, concerto, symphony format.

Ron Jontof-Hutter

And it was a night to remember.

The first tone poem—a term coined by Liszt to depict programmatically, an idea or poem in a single orchestral movement—was Mahler’s Totenfeier which set the theme for the evening.

All the tone poems dealt with the composers grappling with the meaning and purpose of life and death.

Composed in 1888, Totenfeier (Funeral rites) recalls the C minor key of the Funeral March in Beethoven’s  Eroica Symphony, with prominent bass instruments and oboe. Mahler’s original version was a slightly shorter version of what would be the first movement of his second symphony, the ‘Resurrection’. The dramatic opening, solemnity and brooding themes captured the questions Mahler sought to answer: does our life have meaning? Is it merely an empty dream?  A grotesque joke? Is there continuation after death?

Maestro Andrea Molino conducted with conviction bringing out the vast colours of Mahler’s tonal palette —the responsive orchestra playing with tight discipline, great attention to fast changing  dynamics underpinned by effective and  intelligent bowing in the strings.

The highlight of the evening was without doubt Thomas Hampson singing Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, ( Songs of a wayfaring Journeyman.) The text, written by Mahler is autobiographical, depicting his journey from place to place as a young conductor gaining experience.

Influenced by one of Mahler’s favourite books on German folk poetry , ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn,’ the poems describe  his passionate feelings towards Johanna Richter, a blue eyed singer he was in love with but jilted by her. The first song ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’ (On my sweetheart’s wedding day) followed by ‘Ging heut’ Morgen ueber’s Feld (I went out this morning into the fields), Ich hab’ ein gluehend Messer (I have  a hot gleaming knife) and ‘Die zwei blauen Augen( The two blue eyes) describe a young Mahler wearing his heart on his sleeves, and his sense of despair at unrequited love.

Thomas Hampson


Mr Hampson is a singer of exceptional artistry and easy to understand why he was a protégé of Leonard Bernstein.  He displayed a stage presence that went beyond his rich baritone voice. With  each song, he brought out the essence  and fullness of Mahler’s emotions. Mr Hampson not only connected with the orchestra and Maestro Molino’s excellent orchestral accompaniment, but connected with the audience to great effect. His voice was congruent with his body language and facial expression enhanced by excellent diction, dynamics and phrasing.

Following the wistful but lyrical ‘Ging heut’ Morgen…’ Mr Hampson sang the dramatic ‘Ich hab’ein gluehend Messer’ with such intensity of tone and conviction that I felt as if I was sitting in the room with Mahler as he expressed his grief, pain and torment.  The short stabbing articulated quavers depicting the stabbing knife into his chest highlighted Mr Hampson’s understanding, if not empathy, of the intense grief that Mahler surely felt.


Mr Hampson’s elegant, warm and charming stage manner was highly appreciated by both orchestra and audience. Hopefully he will visit again.

Messiaen’s’ Le Tombeau resplendissant’ (The resplendent tomb) was a first performance of this work by the MSO. Written in 1931 aged 23 , Messiaen’s tone poem reaffirms his strong belief in his Catholic faith that he saw as valid and noble. Written after his mother’s death, the ‘vif’ (lively) sections suggest the body and blood of Christ with the slow ’Lent’ more spiritual with redemption of the soul on its journey to heavenly peace.

Yet there is also anger when Messiaen in his preface, wrote “ My youth is dead: I am its executioner/Anger bounding, anger overflowing.” Interestingly, written after his mother’s death, he recognises that the earthly life is finite and that the death of a parent is normal part of growing emotionally and spiritually.  Maestro Molino brought out these qualities with aplomb showing a strong sense of commitment to the composer’s intentions, with excellent response from the orchestra.

The final work, ‘Tod und Verklaerung’ (Death and Transfiguration) written at the age of 24 in 1888 is Strauss reflecting on the death of an artist. The artist looks back at the innocence of childhood, his journey meandering through life aiming for the highest ideals and ending with transfiguration in afterlife. On his deathbed, Strauss said to his daughter-in-law, “funny Alice, dying is just the way I composed it in ‘Tod und Verklaerung!’ The music is onomatopoeic with irregular breathing and heartbeats while dipping motifs suggest transient consciousness. The various moods of the dying man finally end with urgent brutal string and woodwind playing indicating the artist has died followed by a final fading away.

The MSO was in superb form that demanded enormous concentration, and considerable physical, emotional and intellectually resources for a demanding program. Maestro Molino brought out the best with excellent knowledge of the scores, clear conducting, great attention to detail in dynamics and accurate phrasing. He communicated well with the orchestra which made the concert a memorable one also enhanced by wonderful instrumental solos.

Interestingly, the tone poems were written when the composers were aged between 19-28 years. Their world was one of great advances in industrialization, inventions and discoveries. They did not abandon their spirituality but sought meaning to life and its purpose in a rapidly changing world.   While scientists sought answers to the questions ‘how?’ these composers asked ‘why?’

Both are valid and perhaps a model for people today in an uncertain world. We do not need to know definitive answers to questions about our purpose and meaning in life but it is important to ask the questions.

Molino and the MSO provided such a point of departure.

Ron Jontof-Hutter is the author of the satire “The trombone man: tales of a misogynist”

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