The Gaillard was nearly packed for Thursday evening’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, the first of this year’s big orchestral extravaganzas. It’s an absolutely unique work that defies classification. Some think of it as a “symphony in disguise,” and Mahler certainly set his own precedent, with four previous symphonies containing vocal elements.

This event continues the intermittent cycle of Mahler’s symphonic works that have been scattered across recent festivals (Symphonies 4, 5, and 9), all programmed and conducted by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume. He and his trusty Spoleto Festival Orchestra, plus two terrific soloists, delivered an evening I’ll never forget.

Mahler composed this set of six orchestral songs — based on ancient Chinese poetry — at a time when he believed he didn’t have much longer to live. Due to its intensely personal nature, he never allowed it to be performed in his lifetime. And he declined to number it as one of his symphonies, even though he called it “a symphony for tenor, contralto (or baritone), and orchestra.”

The opening song (for tenor), “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow,” hit the audience like a thunderbolt. It’s a tortured outcry of relentless grief and pain that’s summed up in its refrain, “Life is dark, as is death.” As for tenor Russell Thomas, what a voice! You need a big instrument to be heard over a large orchestra at full throttle – and he filled the bill spectacularly.

Next came “The Lonely One in Autumn,” for contralto. The poetry — and its spare, airy music — spoke bleakly of bitterness and disillusionment. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sounded wonderful; she didn’t have to work as hard as Thomas to be heard over a more subdued orchestra, and her interpretive strengths were immediately apparent. She proved her vocal power as well, when her sound sliced right through a big orchestral surge near the song’s end.

Then we heard a cluster of three shorter songs: “Of Youth,” “Of Beauty,” and “The Drunkard in Spring.” These offered respite and contrast from the preceding gloomier sections, as Mahler paid homage to the fleeting joys of the life that he thought was about to end.

Thomas got to do some softer and more subtly expressive singing as he mused about the good old days of youth, but he also made for a very convincing ancient alcoholic in the tipsy drunkard’s song, where he thrilled us with his highest notes of the evening. In between, Cooke delighted, imparting a playful touch to her song about beauty and romance.

“The Farewell” finished the cycle, taking us back to the opening movements’ feelings of hopelessness and despair, which transcended into a kind of quietly rhapsodic resignation at the end. This one — the longest of all the songs — is where Mahler thought he was saying goodbye to his world, and it may well be the most profound music he ever wrote. This one belonged entirely to Cooke, and she rose to the occasion, delivering singing of exquisite beauty, tenderness, and depth.

Our “orchestra of virtuosos” sounded marvelous under Villaume’s inspired baton — rich, passionate and accomplished. Many of its players (and all of its sections) got to shine in solo or ensemble passages; the few small instrumental bobbles passed nearly unnoticed. And we haven’t heard such juicy string sound at the Gaillard since … well, last Spoleto! Counting Louise, make that two triumphs for Villaume and friends this year … thus far.

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