getting to know Mahler via MITSO

The other day, i was walking out of the office and spotted a young graduate student with his violin. We striked up a conversation and he mentioned he plays for the school symphony orchestra and invited me to come. The program will be centered around Mahler, including one of this song cycles (does he have many?) I explained to the young companion that I have a huge gap in understanding when it comes to lieder (lied? lieder?)  He explained that even though it’s true the singing is in a different language, everything is written in the music and ultimately it’s the musicians’ responsibility to bring it out to the listeners.

I kept that in mind but was entirely not convinced that I would ever get it.   I have attempted twice to listen to songs, once with mezzo soprano Anne Sophie von Otter and L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, once with tenor Ian Bostridge and his accompanied pianist.  Both times, I didn’t get anything out of it.  The first encounter, it sounded to me like someone singing a series of songs in a foreign language (which is exactly what it was, but I got nothing else.)  The second was even more strange because the tenor is famous, so everyone bought tickets to come and hear him sing.  He appeared, not a single word to the audience, sang some serious songs (he looked very serious, the words sounded serious, his face was intense).  And he kept at it for 1 hr (might have been 1.5 hr), all the songs looked on paper to be pretty deep stuff (heartbreaks, life, death). Then he took 1 final bow and disappeared.

Surely one would need a little bit of background/experience, a little bit of understanding, a little bit of something, which i was sure I don’t have yet, to feel these songs. It’s hard to explain what this “get” is, but I *somehow* have it for Bach Matthaeus Passion or Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater for example, but not for Bach’s Mass in B minor.  Anyhow, I remained uncommitted for the last 2 weeks.  Finally today came, I checked one last time for cheap tickets to hear Emma Kirby singing intimate 17th and 18th century art songs… no more cheap tix available, the day was hectic, I didn’t feel like running across town to hear more “songs” which I feel I can’t connect.  So, there I was, listening to the MITSO (MIT symphony orchestra) performing Mahler for the night.

Since the last time I listened to the orchestra (at least 5 years ago), they now have a new music director.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it from the first piece because it was just loud to my ears.  Some wonderful short exchanges between the wooden oboes, the bassoon, and the harpsichord. Most of the time though, loads of instruments playing all at once loud, sort of like a room of 100 people talking loud at the same time.  If your ears are sharp, you can catch some conversations.  Otherwise, it’s a flea market.

The music director (also conductor) then took the microphone and introduced Mahler and the history of Weber’s unfinished opera “Die drei Pintos”.  Weber scribbled down some “things” similar to how Beethoven did when brainstorming his work.  It remained unfinished when he passed away.  His son didn’t know what to do with it, and it wasn’t until the grand-son’s encounter with a very young Mahler in Leipzig that we have the complete opera (?).  I enjoyed the piece greatly (the entrance of act I ?), what a contrast to the first piece.  There must have been nearly 100 players on the stage, but the conductor did an incredible job bringing the sound dynamic to the front and center. Here’s a link from youtube, nice and friendly to the ears.

But what brought me to near tears was Mahler’s song cycle.

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), Mahler
1) Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my beloved is married)
2) Ging heut Morgen übers Feld (I went this morning over the field)
3) Ich hab’ein glühend Messer (I have a gleaming knife)
4) Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (The two blue eyes of my beloved)

Local baritone Dana Whiteside sang it exquisitely touching and sensitive. And parallel-ly amazing was the incredible accommodation by the orchestra.  1 singer to 100 instruments, I’ve seen before so many times the conductor just drowning out the poor singer.  Not here. I was highly impressed how soft the entire string section or woodwind section can accompany the piano singing at times.  I think the beauty in these songs comes from the voice color (is that what you call the intensity and shaping of the voice?)  I can’t say much about the phrasing, having heard it for the first time, but I get it!  The music does say everything! It helped to run through the translation quickly before the start to get the gist, then have a brief intro by the music director.  his beloved is getting maried, good for her, not that great for him.  he then meandered through various thoughts and eventually committed suicide (implicitly).  the last song reflects a view back in time and space, a reflection after everything has come to past.  Yes, I heard ALL of that through the singing and the music, without glancing at the translation again (why follow word by word anyway?)

I came in with no mind set, no agenda. may be a little unconvinced that these “song cycles” can give me any clue as to what is going on.  I sat near tear at the end, when the music of reflection came and gone, along with

“Alles! Alles! Lieb und Leid!
Und Welt und Traum!”

“All! All! Love and sorrow,
and world and dream!”

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fancy, no?

fancy ocean bottom elevation map

here’s a link to even a more impressive view, courtery of the International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean project. on an unrelated note, the first concert is coming up soon, am quite looking forward (but not soon enough, 2 meetings coming up…) here’s music to start friday. i realllly love her voice. she won a Handel singing competition in 2004, so how come we don’t hear more of her?