Grand Mahler 8th Caps Minczuk Era With Calgary Phil

Bill Rankin

CALGARY — There was a spirit of unabashed sentimentality as well as considerable musical explosiveness and subtlety at Calgary’s Jack Singer Concert Hall when the Calgary Philharmonic closed a chapter in its 60-year history. The orchestra and its sold-out audience said farewell to Roberto Minczuk, who is moving on after a decade as music director.

Minczuk closed his Calgary tenure with Mahler 8. (Casey K. Photography)
Minczuk closed his Calgary tenure with Mahler 8. (Casey K. Photography)

Minczuk wrapped up the year’s 60th-anniversary celebrations by leading 100 musicians and 241 choristers on June 10 and 11 in Mahler’s monumental Eighth Symphony, a fittingly grand conclusion to his tenure at the CPO. In the June 10 performance I heard, he delivered a tightly managed and musically expansive performance. Over the past few years, the CPO has programmed all of Mahler’s complete symphonies but one; next season Minczuk, as conductor laureate, will conclude the cycle with performances of the Ninth.

From the thunderous E-flat organ blast that begins “Veni Creator Spiritus,” Minczuk took command of forces that included the supplemented CPO (its core is 67), a massed choir, including Edmonton’s Richard Eaton Singers, the CPO Chorus, the Cantaré Children’s Choir, and eight soloists. The chorus made a strong impression in its opening declamation of the 9th-century Pentecostal hymn. Entrances were clean, powerful, and bracing. The three principal soloists — soprano Erin Wall, mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, and tenor David Pomeroy, — gave strong performances in quite different ways.

Portrait of Goethe by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.
Portrait of Goethe by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.

Wall sang all of her music, even the more lyrical parts, with a concerted extroversion, generating drama in her solo moments and penetrating the wall of sound sometimes roaring behind her without any diminishing of impact. Her sound was always big without ever sounding oversung. Pomeroy is a true spinto tenor whose voice rose above the fray in climactic sections, if not easily, at least confidently, and better than just audibly. The lyric aspect of the voice type wasn’t as evident in this performance, perhaps because much of his work was in the context of the enormous choral forces ready to push him to sing his part for all it was worth. His tender “Jungfrau” solo in Part II, though, was impressive both tonally and dramatically.

Platts, a Mahler specialist, had no trouble projecting her warm sound. Unlike baritone Tyler Duncan and bass Oren Gradus, who had relative light duty in this symphony, Platts made her presence felt clearly whenever it was her turn to contribute. Neither Duncan nor Gradus brought much theatrical sense of occasion to their individual moments in Part II, although they certainly sang well enough. Gradus, in particular, sang with little evident conviction, compared to the three main singers I’ve mentioned, who commanded attention throughout.

Roberto Minczuk and soloists on stage at Singer Concert Hall.
Roberto Minczuk and soloists on stage at Singer Concert Hall.

The chorus, which was prepared by the CPO’s chorus director Timothy Shantz, distinguished itself in both the sonically elevated moments in Part I and in the many tricky tempi changes, as well as in the more subdued portions of the longer Faust section celebrating Goethe’s notion of the Eternal Feminine. Minczuk controlled the performance impeccably, revving up the choristers in the pivotal “Ascende” entrance in Part I, guiding them helpfully in the various dramatic accelerandi and molding the several beautiful meditative, even ethereal, passages of Part II masterfully, culminating in the climactic and moving Chorus Mysticus.

The conductor brought the intense physical engagement that parts of Mahler’s vast work require, but never did one get the sense that the performance was about him. In fact, rather than the usual tuxedo, he wore a dark suit with a sheen to it, but he wore no tie with his basic black shirt underneath, formal enough but no trappings of the “maestro” culture.

The augmented orchestra was up to the task set before them. The brass from the opening announcement of the “Veni” theme was especially brilliant and close to impeccable. Concertmaster Diana Cohen delivered some lovely solo moments, and the strings were especially effective in rendering the highly Romantic lushness at the beginning of Part II. But the whole ensemble, singers and players, also infused less reverential aspects of the piece in Part II with buoyancy. The children’s chorus did a splendid job with their duties in both parts of the symphony.

Retiring principal tuba Michael Eastep also played Mahler 8 at the hall's opening.
Retiring principal tuba Michael Eastep also played Mahler 8 at the hall’s opening.

Among other things, the performance was a Minczuk family affair. The conductor’s wife, Valéria, as well as his four children and a son-in-law sang in the chorus. The Minczuks had gone through some bureaucratic frustrations with Canadian immigration authorities over the past few years, but the maestro announced before the concert that days earlier, his family had been granted residency status. He and his family would maintain a home in Calgary, as well as one in Rio, where Minczuk is opening a jazz and bossa nova club as well as pursuing the next phase of his conducting career. He was artistic director of the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira, where he was credited with raising musical standards, until 2011,  when a plan to re-audition orchestra members caused a widely publicized ruckus.

The evening began with tributes to the outgoing music director, including a booster’s plea for continuing support of the arts from Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. Six CPO retiring musicians were also recognized before the performance began. Retiring principal tuba Michael Eastep, a CPO member for 41 years, performed in the first CPO presentation of Mahler 8 to open the Jack Singer Hall 31 years ago. In addition to mentioning that the hall has since acquired a 6008-pipe Casavant organ, replacing the electric keyboard of the first concert, Eastep praised the improvement of the chorus under Shantz, whose name wasn’t included in the program performers list but ought to have been. The Eighth is above all a choral symphony, and the chorus was the star of the show.

Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who covers classical music for Opera Canada and the American Record Guide, among other publications.