West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Song of the Earth” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend.
Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby and tenor John MacMaster joined Maestro Grant Cooper and his orchestra for a performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).”
Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler is my third favorite composer (just after Chopin and Beethoven), so I was very excited to hear the WV Symphony tackle another of his substantial works. A contemporary of Brahms and Bruckner, Mahler was as famous for his arrogance as he was for his brilliance. His compositions possess a complexity and grandeur to rival Wagner.
“Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)” was composed for two vocal soloists and an orchestra. The sixty-five minute, six-movement symphony is comprised of six independent songs. Mahler’s work contains several Chinese motifs, with lyrics both inspired by and culled directly from Hans Bethge’s German translation of ancient Chinese poetry.
During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion with orchestra member Tom Beal, Maestro Cooper encouraged the audience to reflect on what meaning this ancient Chinese poetry – first translated into German and then expounded upon for Mahler’s composition – holds for the 21st century.
An obvious Mahler enthusiast, Cooper called the discovery of Mahler’s music a life-changing event for himself. He shared his passion for this particular piece, his knowledge of the composer’s life and his pleasure at the resurgence in popularity Mahler’s music has enjoyed in recent decades after having been banned by the Nazi regime.
According to Maestro Cooper, Mahler called “Das Lied von der Erde” his most personal work and the poetic scenes of the original Chinese text are clearly painted by Mahler through his music. Cooper also extolled the virtues and multi-layered nature of opera (though “Das Lied von der Erde” is technically a symphony), particularly how the orchestra can reveal a singer’s true thoughts and emotions when they are singing something entirely different.
Rather than opening with another work as usual, Maestro Cooper and his orchestra instead spent the first hour of the performance dissecting Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” While I understood Cooper’s desire to educate the audience in hopes of enhancing their listening experience and greatly appreciated his insights, I felt the musical “spoilers” performed by the symphony during the lecture diminished the power of the work when they finally performed it in its entirety. I think it would have been more effective to have incorporated that segment into the “Preludes” discussion or scheduled it for the second half of the evening. That small complaint aside, however, the actual performance of “Das Lied von der Erde” was lovely.
The first movement, “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery),” masks a lament of human mortality beneath the ignorant bliss of inebriation.
The earth will stand firm for ages – and forever bloom in sping. But you, Mankind, how long will you live then?
The second movement, “Der Einsame im Herbst (The lonely one in Autumn),” is a softer, gentler dirge. The slow death of nature’s beauty as winter approaches mimics the weariness and loneliness of age.
The autumn in my heart has lasted too long
The third movement, “Von der Jugend (Of Youth),” seems to yearn for the careless mirth of youth, but is really a metaphor for the trivial phases of life that can never be recovered.
Friends, beautifully dressed, are drinking and chatting
The fourth movement, “Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty),” sings of the fleeting passions and beauty of youth. Cooper pointed out that Mahler altered the description of the horses in this verse to refer to the trampling effects of life.
The agitation of her heart leaps after him, lamenting
The fifth movement, “Der Trunkene im Frühling (The drunken man in Spring),” contrasts the self-absorption of a drunkard with the renewal of Spring.
What does Spring mean to me? The chance to be drunk!
The finale, “Der Abschied (The Farewell),” is a wistful rumination on life’s passing into death as the day passes into night.
Quiet is my heart, even while waiting for its final hour!
What I enjoy most about the piece is the juxtaposition of voice and instrumentation in Mahler’s arrangement. Rather than focusing heavily on vocals – which can be a composition’s downfall in the wrong hands (or voice) – the singers must compete here with the dynamic energy of the orchestra.
Tenor John MacMaster was especially capable of such a contest. His powerful voice initially engaged in a lilting dance with the orchestra before exploding into the musical equivalent of two thunder clouds colliding.
Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby was also quite good, though she at times lacked the projection necessary to truly dazzle. Granted, it would be difficult for any singer to surpass Audrey Babcock’s performance of Mahler with the WV Symphony in 2009.
Throughout the performance, the WV Symphony played as beautifully as always. The orchestra skillfully and gorgeously portrayed the subtle, emotive nuances of Mahler’s arrangement – from blithe frivolity and radiant jubilance to simmering melancholy and delicate resignation.
Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share.