Classical music: Works by the great Gustav Mahler round out the VSO season

The opportunity to hear Otto Tausik discuss Mahler’s farewell to life and music is cause for celebration.

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Tosk conducts Mahler, Mozart and Zhang

when: June 7-8, 8 p.m.

Where: Orpheum Theatre, 601 Smithe St., Vancouver

Tickets and information: vancouver symphony

Fans of serious classical repertoire have been treated to intense music over the past few weeks: Schubert and pianist Paul Lewis from the Danish String Quartet. Now, Otto Tauske and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra plan to close the season with the music of the late Romantic symphony master Gustav Mahler, specifically his farewell symphony “Eder Erde”. The program begins with Mozart’s “The Magic Flute Overture” and includes new works for erhu and piano by UBC composition professor Dorothy Chang.

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Mahler’s 1909 symphonic song was written at the end of the Romantic era. While feeling the loss of this tradition, Mahler was also seeking new horizons beyond his former Eurocentric world, which could be said to be a harbinger of our contemporary multicultural environment.

Early in his career, Mahler’s poetry was inspired by German literature. At one time, there was also Medieval Latin. In “Song of the Earth” he used German translations of ancient Chinese poetry. Or at least he thought he did. Mahler adapted a recently published version of the poet Hans Bessig, whose free-verse fantasy on Chinese themes derived from an earlier French translation.

Christian Stotting
0530 Classical Christianne Stotijn sings Mahler with VSO. Photos of Steven van Vlietlen

The Mahler Online Archive devotes a great deal of care and attention to the origins of the text. It does matter, and it doesn’t matter: there is no doubt that the composer expressed a desire to transcend the limitations of his tradition. Mahler’s use of Betheger’s text is somewhat cavalier, but this does not prevent Mahler’s sincere desire to express ancient wisdom from Asia rather than Europe.

When Mahler began composing his symphony, he knew his time was coming to an end. He was also superstitious, knowing full well that few composers in the 19th century wrote more than nine symphonies. He chose not to give “Liede ter Erde” a symphony number, but in every sense it is his Symphony No. 9a, his Ninth Symphony numbered 9b: these two great works are complementary twins.

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The two singers split six songs. They begin with a drunken roar, “The Sad Drinking Song of the Earth,” whose ominous refrain is “Darkness is life, is death.” What follows are four shorter songs that describe the seasons and aspects of the seasons of life. The final piece, “The Farewell,” lasts about half an hour, longer than many symphonies of the classical era, and is almost unbearably moving in its sense of resigned acceptance.

The orchestra is only medium-sized by Mahler’s standards, no doubt out of deference to the singers, who include mezzo-soprano Christian Stocking from the Netherlands and American tenor Richard Trey Smagur. The composer’s most notable departure from traditional scoring practice was the use of a pair of harps, a celesta and a mandolin, as well as heightened percussion.

Mahler was a master of grandiose effects, but much of Lied der Erde is about subtle color combinations, in which the orchestra becomes an alliance of extraordinary, ever-changing ensembles. This is not a piece that can—and should not—be programmed very often. But the opportunity to hear Otto Tausik discuss Mahler’s farewell to life and music is cause for celebration.

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music day

A relatively new event for the VSO this year is its annual Music Day, held on June 1st each year. . Tosk conducted a sampling program that included selections from Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky; young violinist Zhu Yaming starred in Sarasate’s performance of Bizet’s Carmen Master Fantasia.

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