Symphony charms with a bright vision at Craterian

Suzanne Vinnik was neither involved in a sordid affair nor dying, fates she often meets as an operatic soprano. That's because she was singing not opera but "Das Himmlische Leben," the haunting song about a child's vision of heaven that is the final movement of Gustav Mahler's Fourth Symphony.

Vinnik was the Rogue Valley Symphony's guest artist in the concert that was presented Saturday night at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in Medford and will be repeated today at the Performing Arts Center in Grants Pass.

The young soprano's resume includes recent appearances with the Florida Grand Opera, the Pittsburgh Opera, Lyric Opera Virginia and the Nevada and Sun Valley operas in addition to appearances at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center.

Maybe it's all that operatic work. Or maybe it has something to do with growing up listening to all of Mahler's (her father's favorite composer) symphonies.

Or maybe it's because, as Vinnik herself has theorized, Mahler, when he wasn't writing symphonies, conducted a lot of opera and knew how to create musical moods for the voice to say things that instruments can't.

Whatever the reason, she showed an impressive palette of emotional colors throughout the movement, evoking an almost child-like euphoria.

But if her performance was the emotional high point of the concert, there was more than that to the program.

RVS Conductor Martin Majkut called it "the most ambitious project of the RVS under my tenure to date."

Well, that's Mahler, whose symphonies tend to be monumental things requiring huge orchestras often accompanied by vocal soloists or symphonic choruses, an idea he lifted from Beethoven.

The first piece on the program was another favorite of Majkut's, Béla Bartók's Dance Suite. Written in 1923, the suite is based on traditional peasant dances of central Europe and even Arabia. Majkut said he wanted to set compositions by these neighbors (Bartók was from Hungary; Mahler, the great Austrian-Jewish composer, from what's now the Czech Republic ) side by side.

It was an provocative choice. The Romantic Mahler sounded easily more than one generation older than the modernist-leaning Bartok, which Majkut described as full of "gritty peasant humor." Like Bartok and Mahler, Majkut is from Eastern Europe, and he handled the suite with energetic confidence

After all, these are dances, five of them, all of which came together in a rousing finale. Is this truly dance music, or should it be taken as absolute music? How seriously should we take it? Bartok devotees love such musings.

The Fourth Symphony is unusual in that the orchestra plays minus trombones and tuba, just a couple horns and perhaps some extra woodwinds. The result was 60 or so musicians playing with a feeling of intimacy, an orchestra coming off like chamber music. This is as close as Mahler would ever came to minimalism.

The amiable, sonata-like first movement opened with flutes and sleighbells, a light-hearted foreshadowing of the childish vision to come. A "bell theme" soon entered. It would recur again and again.

The scherzo introduced a playful dance built around the idea of Death playing the fiddle, a popular theme of medieval German art. In the third movement a solemn march was introduced and went through multiple variations and key changes.

In the tranquil fourth movement a horn introduced a figure that was quickly picked up by the strings, and a lovely adagio set the scene for the heavenly vision that is the movement's subject.

Mahler based the song on the German folk-poem collection "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (The Youth's Magic Horn), which describes a surreal banquet of overflowing bowls, game animals and fish that willingly sacrifice themselves to become food for the revelers and — perhaps in a nod to to St. Ursula, whose cult was linked with Cologne in the Middle Ages — 11,000 dancing virgins.

Mahler had his morbid, introspective side, but it wasn't detectable in this interpretation of his heavenly vision. The playing was breezy and open to the end. Vinnik's singing was light and lovely and presented with impeccable phrasing.

The whole thing ended, perhaps like a German fairy tale, mysteriously, with a hint of something perhaps left hanging in the air.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at

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