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Concert Review: Mimi Lerner makes a happy return

Friday, October 26, 2001

By Robert Croan, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

There are some singers who exude the joy of singing and communicate it directly to an audience. Beverly Sills was that kind of performer. So is Pittsburgh mezzo-soprano Mimi Lerner. You know how much she loves to sing the moment she opens her mouth, and it's impossible not to share her joy.

For those who have known this extraordinary artist over the years, it is also impossible not to share her sorrows as well. In recent years, Lerner has had serious, nearly fatal health problems, but she came through.

Last evening, she made her first foray back to the concert stage. She did it cautiously in a venue that was essentially among close friends and colleagues, in a faculty-student concert at Carnegie Mellon University, where she is chair of the voice faculty.

In case there is any music lover in Pittsburgh who does not know Lerner, she is a longtime resident of this city who has made a career at home and in major opera houses of the United States and Europe. She is, arguably, Pittsburgh's most beloved classical vocalist, and the small confines of CMU's Kresge Recital Hall were brimming with good will when she walked on stage.

It was a concert by the Carnegie Mellon Contemporary Ensemble, and the featured work was Gustav Mahler's "The Song of the Earth" -- not the big orchestral version heard in symphony halls but a rarely heard arrangement for chamber orchestra by Arnold Schoenberg, who created it for a similar situation, just among friends.

Lerner's performance was a triumph of artistry, technique and sheer determination over tremendous physical -- and surely also emotional -- adversity. She vocalized her part as a personal statement, as if she were composing the words and music herself on the spur of the moment. Yes, there were some moments of evident struggle, but there were also stretches of extraordinary beauty -- none more so than her final repeated pronouncements of the word "Ewig" (eternally).

Douglas Ahlstedt, a member of CMU's voice faculty, tossed off his difficult solos not exactly with ease but certainly with security and even a welcome touch of humor here and there. The instrumentalists conducted by faculty member Efrain Amaya played as well as might be expected of any student in this difficult music. The program also included brief works by Amaya and undergraduate composer Matthew Heap.

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