MahlerFest XXXI includes chamber and orchestra concerts with a focus on late works

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Kenneth Woods
Chris Stock

The 31st MahlerFest is all about late artistic transformations.

The 2018 festival begins Monday, May 14, and culminates Saturday and Sunday, May 19 and 20, with concerts in Macky Auditorium featuring one of Mahler’s major orchestral works, Das Lied von der Erde (The song of the earth). It will be paired with the Seventh Symphony of Jean Sibelius.

Both works represent a farewell in music: Sibelius because he did not write another symphony in the remaining 24 years of his life, and Mahler because Das Lied von der Erde ends with a movement titled “The Farewell.”

Beyond the orchestra concerts, the festival week includes other events, among them two chamber music concerts: a ticketed concert at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 16 at the Dairy Arts Center, and a free concert at 2 p.m. Friday, May 18 in the Academy Chapel. Other events open to the public include rehearsals, a scholarly symposium and pre-concert lectures. (See the full schedule and list of performers at mahlerfest.org/mahlerfest-xxxi/). For the third year, the festival also offers a Mahler Conducting Fellowship.

Kenneth Woods, the festival artistic director, says the expansion of MahlerFest is a result of Mahler’s increasing popularity. “At first, MahlerFest may have been the only place in the Rocky Mountain region where a Mahler symphony was being done,” he says. “Now it’s not the rarity it once was. It’s nice to expand that wheel outward to other composers.”

Going forward, Woods would even like to include visual arts and literature in the festival, “so that the whole week becomes a Disneyland for the mind.”

For 2018, he planned the concert programs around the featured work. “There are things in Das Lied von de Erde that I wanted to reflect in other pieces,” he explains. “One of those is the idea of Das Lied as Mahler’s late reinvention of himself as a composer.”

When Mahler wrote Das Lied in 1908, he had not written anything since his daughter had died and he had been diagnosed with heart disease 18 months before. After that pause, his three final works — Das Lied plus the Ninth and unfinished Tenth symphonies — represented a style that grew from those personal tragedies.

“I thought it would be interesting to look at other composers who had changes of direction at the end of their careers, where they reinvented themselves (musically),” Woods says. To realize that idea, he started by pairing Mahler’s Lied with Sibelius’s enigmatic and valedictory Seventh Symphony.

Sibelius’s reinvention in the Seventh, he says, “is about taking away some of the scaffolding of the structure” — starting with the fact that it unfolds in a single continuous movement, with no clear formal landmarks along the way. “You’re moving through the work with fluidity, striving toward a goal you only get to at the end, but that end’s not home,” Woods says. “That’s part of what’s so poignant about the piece.”

“The last two-and-half pages are tragic, and you get the sense he’s thinking, ‘This is the end.’”

Similar ideas inform the pieces Woods chose for the first chamber concert (May 16), featuring Daniel Silver, clarinet, and other festival artists. For starters, Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet was written after the composer had apparently given up composition, but then was inspired by a clarinetist he heard.

The program also features the Sextet from Richard Strauss’ final opera, Capriccio. “The Sextet is a turning of a corner for Strauss,” Woods says. “It shows him going away from theatrical language and opening the door to (his) intimate late language, which is so touching and beautiful.”

On the same program, Woods will join the other players on cello for “Pilgrim” by John McCabe, which Woods relates to the closing movement of Das Lied.

The second chamber concert (May 18) features works by Brahms, Alexander Zemlinsky, Jesse Jones and George Enescu that were selected by festival artists Karen Bentley Pollick, violin, and Parry Karp, cello. They will perform with pianist Jennifer Hayghe.

The festival’s featured work, Das Lied von der Erde, is a setting of ancient Chinese poetry translated into German. It comprises six movements, the texts sung in alternation by mezzo-soprano and tenor soloists. The poetry includes drinking songs, descriptions of loneliness, youth and beauty, and the final extended farewell.

“It’s about life,” Woods says. “The characters are very human and the scenes are out of normal life, but each one of them becomes either magnified or distilled down to something small and precious.”

It ends with an evocation of the parting of friends and a journey “homeward,” with the word “forever” repeated into silence. “That one is just amazing,” Woods says. “It’s as close to a window into another human being’s soul as you’re ever going to get in a piece of music.

“It ends in a state of transcendence and bliss.”

On the Bill: MahlerFest XXXI. May 14-20. For a full schedule, visit mahlerfest.org/mahlerfest-xxxi.