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Das Lied von der Erde

Mezzo-soprano Lynne McMurty

Western New York Chamber Orchestra premieres a new version of Mahler’s song symphony

On Sunday February 9 at 4pm, the Western New York Chamber Orchestra will present a unique version of Gustav Mahler’s late masterpiece, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), in Rosch Recital Hall on the SUNY Fredonia Campus. The performance will feature the premiere of a new chamber orchestra arrangement of Mahler’s song symphony by the group’s artistic director Glenn Cortese, who will also conduct the orchestra and the vocal soloists, Canadian mezzo-soprano Lynne McMurtry and American heldentenor Marc Deaton.

Das Lied von der Erde, a large-scale work in six separate movements, each of which is an independent song, is described on the title page as “A Symphony for Tenor and Alto (or Baritone) Voice and Orchestra.” Based on the free translations of ancient Chinese texts by Hans Bethge in his 1907 work The Chinese Flute, the work offers the sole example in Mahler’s works of the use of Chinese motifs, including the use of the non-Western pentatonic scale. Bethge himself reworked a literal German translation of two earlier French versions of the eighth century BC Chinese texts. The delights of earthly beauty contrasted with the transience of life form the subject matter of these Chinese poems, themes that Mahler found poignantly appealing after the death of his beloved eldest daughter in 1907 and his own unexpected diagnosis with a potentially fatal heart condition the same year. Writing to his protégé, the young conductor Bruno Walter, about Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler said, “I think that it is probably the most personal thing I have written.”

Arnold Schönberg, the 20th-century modernist composer par excellence, began to arrange Das Lied von der Erde for chamber orchestra in 1920, reducing the orchestral forces to string and wind quintets, and calling for the addition of piano, harmonium, and celesta to augment the harmonic texture. Schönberg never finished the task but his version was completed in 1983 by Rainer Riehn. While the resulting work has enjoyed a limited concert life, many have found it less than totally satisfactory, since it was planned for the concerts of the Society for Private Musical Performances and was restricted to a prescribed range of instrumentation.

Cortese was able to pay more attention to preserving Mahler’s tone colors than Schönberg. and his arrangements are also unique in that he took the Complete Critical Edition of Mahler as his starting point. He harmonized both page breaks and rehearsal numbers to make each of his instrumentally reduced versions directly comparable with the Critical Edition, so that the piano reduction of the Complete Critical Edition is equally compatible with both of these versions.

It is safe to say that maestro Glenn Cortese, who is himself a composer, knows Mahler’s original score for Das Lied von der Erde as well as anyone on the planet, so when the Hong Kong-based entrepreneur and musical philanthropist Daniel Ng Yat-chiu wanted to commission a new chamber version of the work, he turned to Cortese, who ended up making two separate versions, one for chamber orchestra and the other for chamber ensemble (20 players). Both of these versions have been published by Universal Edition, the venerable Viennese musical publishing house that also publishes the complete critical edition of the works of Mahler. For his Fredonia performance, Cortese is introducing yet another scrupulously edited and arranged version of Mahler’s original score, this time for ten instrumentalists.

Cortese is grateful for the generous support of Daniel Ng Yat-chiu and he says that he lost a true friend as well as a patron, when Ng Yat-chiu died this past August. Cortese was introduced to Ng Yat-chiu in 1998 by the wealthy American financier and amateur musician Gilbert Kaplan, who has made something of a cottage industry of conducting and recording just one work, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

Ng Yat-chiu, who received a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois, later went on to establish the first Hong Kong franchise of a popular American fast food restaurant, the start of a financial venture that ultimately made him a very wealthy man. He was the director of the Hong Kong based Octavian Society, which carries out archival, editing, and scholarly work on the music manuscripts of Richard Strauss and the music library of the German pianist Paul Wittgenstein. He was also actively involved in a new translation of what he considered to be the severely mistranslated Chinese poems used by Mahler in the final “Der Abschied” movement of Das Lied von der Erde. His version is sung in Cantonese, as it most closely resembles the lost eighth-century Middle Chinese dialect in which the original texts were written, and it has been recorded by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

For tickets and more information, call 673-3217 or visit www.wnyco.org.

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