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Las Vegas Philharmonic opener celebrates human voice with works by Mozart, Mahler

When you think of symphonic music, the human voice may not be the first instrument that comes to mind.

Yet it plays a major role in the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s Saturday season opener, with soprano Maria Valdes joining the orchestra for not one but two of the concert’s three selections.

Music director Donato Cabrera — beginning his third season leading the Philharmonic — spent his summer vacation tuning up for tonight’s concert, in a way, by conducting Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love” and an evening of opera arias and duets in Concepcion, Chile’s second-largest city.

There’s no opera on Saturday’s opening-night program, but selections by Mozart and Mahler both spotlight sopranos, giving soloist Maria Valdes two chances to perform.

She’ll first sing Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate” — a vocal concerto the wunderkind composer wrote in three weeks, at the age of 16.

As for Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G major — which looks at the world through a child’s eyes — Valdes will have to wait until the fourth movement, which incorporates “Das himmlishe Leben (The Heavenly Life),” a child’s vision of heaven in song.

“You don’t necessarily think of Mahler as an opera composer, which he was not,” Cabrera says. “But his first compositions were songs. And as a conductor, he was the music director of the Vienna State Opera.”

So “the essence of it is the love of the human voice,” he adds. “Mozart was a master of it — and so was Mahler.”

Both pieces “are perfect” for Valdes, according to Cabrera, thanks to her “ethereal, floating, beautiful voice.”

There’s just one piece of Saturday’s program that doesn’t feature Valdes: the concert opener, Kevin Beavers’ 2011 “Bright Sky.”

The Philharmonic will perform the West Coast premiere of Beavers’ work, which was commissioned by the Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music as one of three songs based on poems by Brooklyn local Diane Gregory. It’s the first of three premieres the Philharmonic will present this season.

The premiere continues Cabrera’s policy of performing works by living composers.

But it’s “a perfect way to start not only this concert but a season,” the conductor says, because “it’s so ebullient and full of hopeful energy.”

As Cabrera begins his third season as the Philharmonic’s music director, the “wonderful challenge” that’s “beginning to emerge” is the multiyear process of exploring “composers through multiple pieces,” he explains. “I will have a better understanding of how (Philharmonic musicians) know Mozart — and they will have a better understanding of how I interpret Mozart.”

This season’s concerts also feature a few introductions for Las Vegas audiences.

At next May’s season finale, for example, the Philharmonic will perform Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 — the first time the orchestra has performed one of the composer’s works.

“It’s a great exploration for not only the Philharmonic but Las Vegas,” according to Cabrera.

Yet even revisiting great works by such masters as Beethoven and Mozart provides the opportunity to offer “something that excites and challenges and educates,” the conductor says, as if “you’ve walked into a room and you’re turning on a light switch, so you can see the furniture and notice the artwork on the wall.”

Another season highlight returns Cabrera, and the Philharmonic, to the theme being explored in Saturday’s season opener: the power of the human voice.

Next April, the orchestra will perform Brahms’ “German Requiem” in collaboration with the Las Vegas Master Singers, conducted by David Weiller, UNLV’s director of choral studies.

“It’s the first time we’re tackling a major choral work together,” Cabrera notes. “These major choral works are so important to perform … and the list is endless. They deserve a pride of place” on the Philharmonic schedule.

There’s also room on that schedule for a variety of programs, from John Williams’ Oscar-winning soundtracks (March 4 and 5), again featuring the Master Singers, to Oscar winner Rita Moreno narrating Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” at the “Home for the Holidays” concerts Dec. 3 and 4.

“What’s wonderful for us, we all have the same shared plan and sense of purpose,” Cabrera says of making music with the Philharmonic. “It has become, exponentially, more profound and satisfying for all of us.”

Read more from Carol Cling at reviewjournal.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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