By JOE BARRON
21st Century Media
Jerome Rosen was looking for a soprano. He asked an old friend, the opera and recital star Benita Valente, if she would be willing to come out of retirement briefly, but she declined. Instead, she recommended Rosen get in touch with a student of hers at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, a 25-year-old native of State College by the name of Sarah Shafer.
“We were very lucky to get her,” Rosen said in a telephone interview April 22, “because she’s going to be out of our league very soon.”
Shafer will appear with the Independence Sinfonia in Fort Washington May 4, singing the finale of Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Rosen, the Sinfonia’s conductor and music director, recalled that in their first rehearsal together, when Shafer finished her run-through, the musicians broke into the most spontaneous applause he has heard in his five years with the orchestra.
“I think she has the potential to be a great artist,” Rosen said. “What she brings to the table is a beautiful voice and understanding. She’s an artist. She gets it, and she gets it across.”
The Mahler Fourth certainly requires understanding. After three movements of purely instrumental music lasting nearly an hour, the soprano steps up and sings a 10-minute meditation on the joys of heaven as seen through the eyes of a small child.
“It’s not a showpiece,” Shafer said April 24 in a phone interview. “It’s not about particularly the vocalism of it. It’s about this amazing text and how he brings that out. You have to make sure you know what every word means to color it ―that the meaning is conveyed.”
The “amazing text” is a Bavarian folk song titled “Heaven Is Full of Violins,” although most of the verses deal with an abundance of food. Mahler altered the lyrics slightly and named his setting “The Heavenly Life.”
“So many of (the child’s) ideas revolve around food in heaven, which I find fascinating and beautiful,” Shafer said. “It’s a worldly view of what life can be in heaven.”
For Shafer, the challenge of Mahler’s music is to convey the character of the text while summoning enough technique to project her voice over the orchestra. The piece is a balancing act, she said: If she sings too professionally, the child’s innocence in lost. On the other hand, if she sings too innocently, the orchestra will drown her out.
“There are difficult moments,” she said. “Overall the range is particularly challenging. It’s not always easy to manage.”
Mahler set the text as a song with orchestra in 1892. The first three movements of the symphony did not take shape for another eight years, but when they did, the composer linked them thematically to the last, as he wrote later, “in the most intimate and meaningful way.”
Rosen describes the symphony as a mosaic in which the orchestra is broken down into ever-shifting combinations of chamber ensembles, and the challenge, from his point of view, was finding enough musicians to handle the individual parts. The Sinfonia has six regular cellists, Rosen said, while, for this music, it would be better off with 10 or 12.
“I’ve never conducted a Mahler Symphony before,” he said. “I’ve lost a little sleep over it. It’s very challenging for everyone, including me. Maybe I should study it a little bit more.”
The May 4 program will begin with Franz Joseph Haydn’s the Symphony No. 103, nicknamed “The Drum Roll.” While Mahler and Haydn seem to have opposite musical personalities, they are in some ways kindred spirits, Rosen said. Both grew up in small towns on the outskirts of the Austrian Empire. They breathed the same country air, and they were steeped in the same tradition of Gypsy tunes and village dances. While Mahler’s music is darker and more convoluted, he does have a sunny side, as the Fourth Symphony proves, and Haydn, for all his psychological simplicity, can be mysterious. The unaccompanied drum roll that opens his symphony and gives it its name is a case in point.
“It’s a very nice contrast to the Mahler,” Rosen said.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: The Independence Sinfonia, with soprano Sarah Shafer, performs Haydn and Mahler.
WHEN: Concert is at 3 p.m. May 4
WHERE: Congregation Or Hadash, 190 Camp Hill Road, Fort Washington.
TICKETS: Adults, $15; Students and seniors, $10.
INFO.: For tickets and information call (267) 625-8534 or check www.independence-sinfonia.org.