Mahler’s Transcendent “Song of the Earth” at the LA Philharmonic

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The German composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) during the tumultuous and difficult final years of his life. Politics and anti-semitism had led him to resign as the director and conductor of the Vienna Court Opera, even though he had been hailed as one of the greatest conductors of all time. His daughter Maria died from scarlet fever, then Mahler was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. He refused to number Das Lied von der Erde as his ninth symphony, worried about the “curse” that had befallen other great composers (Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvorak, to name a few) after completing their ninth. As it turned out, Mahler died just prior to the premier of Das Lied von der Erde in Munich in November 1911. It was his penultimate work. His last completed symphony was in fact his ninth symphony, which has been described as a meditation on death.

Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) is a wild roller coaster of a work, comprised of six songs scored for two solo voices in alternating movements, plus lots of woodwinds, brass, a big percussion section, and strings. The mood swings from joy to sorrow in a musical delirium that perhaps mirrored the turbulence in his life. The song texts derive from Chinese poems reflecting on the big themes of life and death. Titles include “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow,” “The Solitary One in Autumn”, and “The Farewell.”

Leonard Bernstein, a great champion of Mahler’s work, described Das Lied as sounding like a child going from joy to grief and back again at one of his Young People’s Concerts in February 1960. Bernstein declared before the young audience that children would probably understand the emotions of Mahler’s work better than adults. For more background on the work, here is Leonard Bernstein introducing Das Lied in an undated interview:

All this preamble leads me to recommend the four upcoming performances of this monumental and magnificent work by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel is a passionate devotee of this most difficult and passionate composer. He previously conducted the complete Mahler cycle with the both the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and the LA Phil. Tenor Russell Thomas and mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford will perform the two solo voices.

Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford (Photo by Dario Acosta courtesy of the LA Phil) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The debut performance takes place at Walt Disney Concert Hall this Thursday, April 5, followed by performances on Friday and Saturday, April 6 and 7. These three evenings will feature staging by the LA Phil’s Artist-Collaborator Yuval Sharon in collaboration with TEATROCINEMA, a Chilean theater company known for its spectacular combinations of live performance and video effects. For you purists, the final Sunday matinee performance on April 8 will be music only. Yuval Sharon will give a pre-concert presentation at 7 p.m. before each of the evening performances, where he will talk about Mahler, Das Lied, as well as the inside story of this collaborative staging.

Yuval Sharon directs the staging of “The Song of the Earth” in collaboration with TEATROCINEMA. (Photo by Casey Kringlen courtesy of the LA Phil) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Mahler is a unique composer to say the least. Mahler Societies all over the world religiously follow live performances of his grand works. I suspect many society members will be in attendance at these LA Phil performances. But for the uninitiated, this is a chance to hear (and see) a big and challenging work like few others.

Banner image of Gustavo Dudamel by Erik Madigan Heck, courtesy of the LA Phil