The volunteer orchestra, which was not part of the 10-day festival, brought back beloved Tucson soprano Christi Amonson to perform Mahler’s breathtaking “Das Himmlische Leben” from his Symphony No. 4. Amonson, who earned her doctorate degree from the University of Arizona, left Tucson last fall for a teaching job in Alabama.
Amonson’s soaring soprano bookended SASO’s concert at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. The afternoon opened with SASO violist Richard White’s aria “If Life Were As It Seems” from his opera “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and closed with the Mahler.
In between the two, Music Director Linus Lerner programmed Hindemith’s viola concerto “Der Schwanendreher,” featuring the well-traveled violist Hong-Mei Xiao. In addition to teaching at the University of Arizona, Xiao has performed around the world and records with the respected classical music label Naxos.
This was the first performance of White’s aria, co-written with New York librettist Terry Quinn, who made the trip to Tucson for the concert. The piece has shades of Leonard Bernstein, incorporating Bernstein’s lively rat-a-tat-tat melody through horns and xylophone. Brass and percussion hint at shades of mariachi, but it sounds more incidental than planned. Small percussive explosions are interrupted by brass and winds that segue into dreamy string passages.
“If Life” marries opera and musical theater and proves to be a showpiece for Amonson, a dramatic soprano who soars at the higher register. When she hit those high notes, you held your breath to see where she would take it. Since leaving Tucson last fall for a teaching job in Alabama, Amonson seems to have settled into her voice, performing with a confidence that was inspiring.
The quartet accompanying her was also terrific. The four had reportedly rehearsed together only a few times, but their voices melded so well together that they sounded like they had been singing together much longer.
Amonson returned for the concert’s second half, in the last movement of the hour-long Mahler’s Fourth. Her voice matched the song’s title: heavenly. The same can be said for the orchestra’s performance. Aside from a couple minor clunky moments in the third movement, including clashing cymbals that were a bit off time and strings not quite matching tempo, the performance was spot-on.
Lerner explained before the performance that Mahler’s writing left no note hanging. Every note had a purpose and his intention was that you hear each instrument as if it were soloing. Under Lerner’s baton, we did. He made sure that we could hear each instrument’s distinctive voice — from the flute planted in the middle of the string section to the tingle of the triangle behind the brass and winds, to the violin three seats in from Concertmaster Erika Rush.
During the second movement, Rush had two voices; she played two violins, one of them tuned higher than the other. Throughout the movement you could hear her no matter how lost she became in the rush of strings.
The performance by Xiao was a bonus; usually orchestras have only one guest artist, but SASO gave us two. If you have never seen Xiao perform, you need to pencil her onto your bucket list. To say she is a fine musician is to greatly undervalue her artistry She has the technical chops we would expect from someone who has performed with orchestras throughout the world, but it is her interpretive skills that will have you mesmerized.
Hindemith wrote the concerto based on German folk songs. It’s scored for a minimal orchestra — the strings include just four cellos and a trio of bass players, accompanied by percussion, brass and winds. But Xiao made it sound like there was a full complement of violas.
Xiao, striking a regal pose in her bright tangerine spaghetti-strapped gown with embroidery and beads, is not an overly expressive player. She does not bound about from the weight of the music or resort to dramatic antics to draw your attention. But when she pulls that bow across the strings, she produces a sound so crisp and full that you find yourself looking around to see where the rest of the viola section is hiding. Surely that sound, so sublime and nuanced, its tone crisp and vibrant, cannot be coming from a single instrument.
Xiao has guested with SASO in the past, and hopefully with the ovation she received on Sunday she will come back. Meanwhile, you can see her regularly perform with the UA, where she teaches.