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!”

So, what can I say? Does one need to shell out hundreds of dollars to hear famous singers sing these songs and scratch one’s head when one doesn’t get it?  I realize a lot of this has to do with the proximity of the performer to where I sit.  This is almost the identical spot I sat and got transformed by the Handel and Haydn Society playing Handel’s Israel in Egypt, row 11 center in Kresge Oval, just at the conductor’s height, about 5 meters away from the stage.  So much of the essence is in the pianissimo to piano part. sitting 40m to 200m away, surely you will lose them.  It’s quite possible that’s what happened to me during my first 2 experiences.  In a way, I’m glad to have such an intimate experience to discover this song cycle.

So, let’s cap the night with Sarah Connolly’s take of the reflection (part 4).  If you’d like to hear the entire cycle, here’s part 1, part2, part 3.  (I’ve also recently “got it” with Sarah Connolly, after her amazing take of Ariodante that got both my officemate and I coming to a halt at work and fixating our ears to the speakers.)

(ps- the last piece by Strauss was a bit too complex for my comprehension 🙂 ).

About thả diều
writing-challenged opera-addict

13 Responses to getting to know Mahler via MITSO

  1. jcmwee says:

    Hey Dr T, sorry lieder was so impenetrable to you first time around. Glad you have found the Romantic stuff easier to listen to this time around. Lied = 1 song, lieder = songs, plural.

    My guess on why Bach/Handel/music from the classical/baroque (circa 17th-18th Century) era is easier for most people to digest is because it is written in a time when music and the arts strived for a universal and classic form (in the mould of the classical ancient Greek and Roman worlds).

    Historically by the time the lied genre develops in the Romantic era (most of 19th Century), the focus is on the individual and the particular. The lied was a genre that allowed 1 singer and 1 pianist to tell 1 story (but not a universal story). In the broadest possible sense, music from the Romantic era was introspective and composers began to play around with musical form that had been rigidly adhered to over the years. So it gets all a little more complex. But beautiful nonetheless. I love lieder and music from the Romantic era.

    Actually, I just love the way that the development of European society, philosophy, politics and culture over the centuries can be seen in its music.

    Sorry, mini lecture over now.

    • thả diều says:

      ah, thanks jcmwee. no no, i like the mini lecture a lot! i think one does need a little of explanation. not just that, it needs a bit of right time right place to develop connection to lieder at a personal level. Unfortunately here in the US people dont sing these often (or may be I haven’t looked for them :-)), so it’s hard to get it down the system enough time to develop any sort of feeling. The ones by Schubert or Schumann, i think an understanding of German goes a long way (you think so?) as well as sitting close to the singers. As you said, it’s personal story telling, in which case sitting 2 levels up on the balcony 200m away is just plainly anti-personal.

      well, you know we have a series of singers coming in over next few months (Thomas Quasthoff, Michael Schade…) to sing lieder, and am still mulling over getting tix. either one pays hundreds of dollars to sit close, or tens of dollars for far away seats… wouldn’t it be nice that the arts are subsidized and you can listen to all these singers for $10 :-).

      • Anik LaChev says:

        in big auditories, go with binoculars. I wouldn’t do it in an intimate hall setting, but if we’re talking balconies and squinting, go for it. 😉

  2. Anik LaChev says:

    Check out Quasthoff if he does German repertory, amazing. I last heard him in St. Matthew’s Passion and he was nothing short of marvelous.

    Getting the language really helps with the Lied repertoire; I am not sure if I would have ended up as a fan without booklets in various languages (and the added fortune of having been born German). I know that the language barrier is what keeps me from enjoying Russian song repertory more.

    My start into Mahler were also the Songs of a Wayfarer, and crying during No. 4. 🙂 They used it as music in a play where I had a crush on the lead actress to boot. Shortly after that, the von Otter recording came out and I was sold.

    • jcmwee says:

      Glad to have explained something Dr T. Some understanding of German may help, but I learned to love the music as recordings first, then came to sing them, then learnt some German. All in what could be called the wrong order, but *shrugs shoulders* – the outcome was the same – I still love lieder.

      I would come close to cutting an arm AND a leg off to see Quasthoff. But yeah… I do understand balancing what you can afford, and what would be the best seats available. I’ve only ever managed to purchase C reserve tickets to the opera…

    • thả diều says:

      ah, it’s nice to hear No.4 also touched the young Anik the same way :-).
      Ok, i’ll go with you both intuitions (and enthusiasm) and will get tix *soon* for the joint Quasthoff_Schade concert in my favorite concert hall. There’s also a short Mozart detour. it’s nearly sold out on the ground level already and we’re still 5 months away. I saw him once giving a master class 10 yrs ago at the same place he’ll perform. He was also here back in May this year that I missed (was still in hiding from german lieder :-)). greetings both of you from Denver!

  3. jcmwee says:

    Let us know all about it won’t you?

  4. Smorg says:

    Late to the party (as usual)! What a cool discovery for you, Dr T! 😀 It doesn’t take a big name to make the music move one indeed. Glad to hear the local baritone did well!

    I’ve always loved Lieder and song cycles (especially the French ones). I can pop the CD of Regine Crespin doing the Berlioz nuits d’ete cycle and Lalo’s and others into the stereo and have it played on repeat for days on end. I don’t know much of the Russian songs either, but Shostakovich’s Songs & Dances of Death is a haunting thing if you get the right singer to live it (Galina Vishnevskaya does it for me). 🙂

  5. yvette says:

    Sorry for coming here so late but I kept reading the growth of it all! I am very fond of Mahler and always deeply moved by the text and music of his works. I became passionate about both Mahler and Alma Mahler, their life and great sorrows, the artistic richness around them. I am a kind of late developper in the field of Lied and Melody. I think the word ‘Melody’ is used in my country and Lied is used in Germanic culture, roughly! I am very fond of the French school of melody. Henry Duparc is my favourite. They are fine poems to grab and then the music is romantic verging on modernism. (I am not a specialist so I may be wrong..) Then Debussy and Fauré of course.There is a site you probably know which is helpful for languages when we are on YT or listening to various radios around the world:
    But the Four Last songs are very very special. Martina Arroyo is what I enjoy
    Smorgy of course is so right about Regine… here I am not chauvinistic!

    • thả diều says:

      ah, thanks Yvette for the link with helpful languages! let me start out already w/ Frau K’s lieder cd. i’ve now decided to read through the lyrics first to get a feeling for the songs. yep, am quite a newcomer to this, wasn’t aware at all of songs in various languages. I can see though that depends on our experience, the songs can have a much deeper meaning for us than for others. For example if I introduce someone to a vietnamese song that’s very dear to me, i can feel the lives, the mind, the experience in the song, which for a foreigner, even if they understand it, wouldn’t feel the same way because they didn’t go through the experience. or if I hear a song about pomegranates trees in a French Melody, even if i understand it, it would have more effect on you than on me for sure :-).

      hi Eyes and Smorgy 🙂
      (excuse the slow reply, i too busy attempting to skate before heading out of town for another meeting…)

      Ah Eyes, by Kiri’s four last songs, you meant the song cycle by Strauss that Yvette made a link up there? that’s a GREEEAT voice, Martina Arroyo! Thanks Yvette for providing the link!

      • Eyesometric says:

        Yes. The same as the link. I guess everyone has their favourite interpretation of these songs – there are many on the YT page that Yvette’s link takes you to , including Frau H., Jesse Norman and Renee Fleming.

  6. Eyesometric says:

    Like many others, I guess, Kiri’s “Four Last Songs” saw me through many a dark day.

    • yvette says:

      You said it … about the Four Last Songs. There are so many gifted singers who have celebrated this music and words for our good use of them. I also have a live rendition from Waltraud Meier, tremendous., we have not talked about her often. She has a definite way of expressing, lots of characterization, on the Vesselina ‘s path,; She is older but keeps her dynamism and ‘youth ‘

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