Gustav Mahler considered “Das Lied von der Erde” (Song of the Earth) a symphony, though it was for two voices and orchestra. In fact, Mahler’s great champion, Leonard Bernstein, called the work “Mahler’s greatest symphony.”
The Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern with tenor Joseph Kaiser and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung will perform Mahler’s moving piece Feb. 24-26 at Helzberg Hall.
To set the stage for “Das Lied,” the concert will open with Franz Schubert’s lyrical Symphony No. 8, known as the “Unfinished Symphony.”
Scholars still aren’t sure why Schubert never finished the work. Some speculate it was because at the time he was writing it, he had his first outbreak of syphilis. Others believe he simply lost interest, turning his attention to other works in progress, like his “Wanderer” fantasy.
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Whatever the reason, the symphony in its unfinished state leaves an especially profound, mysterious impression.
“It’s mystical,” Stern says. “Who knows, the final movements might have been happy and carefree and light, but I don’t think so. The fact that he died so young and these two movements are left hanging and they’re so unbelievable beautiful sort of adds an extra dimension of longing and wistful regret.”
Stern adds that the serenity of Schubert’s unfinished symphony is “a perfect foil” for Mahler’s “Das Lied.”
“It really is Mahler’s closing, final statement,” Stern says. “But it’s not about death. Obviously there’s a lot of mortality in it, but it’s serene and peaceful. It’s not about mortality as much as it’s about eternity.”
DeYoung, who has sung the work many times, agrees that even though the work was written near the end of Mahler’s life — a life filled with great tragedy — it is not morbid.
“The thing that’s important to know about Mahler is that he can go into the very depth,” DeYoung says, “but most of the time, even in Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children), he ends with a hopeful, eternal feeling. And that’s very much true in ‘Das Lied von der Erde,’ where you go through all these different experiences, love and longing and loss and yet you end with ewig, ewig. Eternal, eternal. The exhilarating part is equal to the gloomy part.”
The text for “Das Lied” comes from Hans Bethge’s “The Chinese Flute,” a German translation of ancient Chinese poetry. The poems express the classic Eastern sensitivity to ephemeral beauty and the transience of life.
“ ‘Das Lied’ is a meditation on the different stages of life,” Stern explains. “So you’ve got drunken fun and hedonism and then it gets very serene and Zen-like. At the end, we take our humanity from the earth, and the beauties and mysteries of the earth renew themselves every year, and part of that is our passing, and when you pass, the world and nature go on, and our spirit goes on and all that’s left is the eternal.
“It’s a piece that changes you when you listen to it and it’s a piece that changes you when you perform it.”
There were a few trailblazing female composers in the 18th century who broke through the thick glass ceiling to make their mark in music history books. Musica Sacra conducted by Timothy McDonald will feature one of them, Isabella Leonarda, Feb. 19 at Arrupe Auditorium on the campus of Rockhurst University.
“Leonarda’s music is barely known, even by scholars,” McDonald said. “She was an Ursuline nun who lived in northwestern Italy and published about 200 compositions during her lifetime, almost all of them composed after she reached the age of 50.”
McDonald will conduct two of her works, the Litany to the Blessed Virgin, Op. 10, No. 11, and the Sonata Prima, Op. 16, No. 1. Also on the program is Mozart’s Alma Dei Creators and the Mass in G by Franz Schubert.
“The Mozart work is a brief gem, mature in style and composed about the same time as his violin concertos,” McDonald said. “And Schubert’s youthful Mass in G was composed when he was about 18. It’s filled with lyricism and charm.”
7 p.m. Feb. 19. Arrupe Auditorium, Rockhurst University, 1100 Rockhurst Road. $10-$22. Tickets available at the door or call 816-235-6222.
Ethel string quartet
Ethel, which bills itself as ‘“the string quartet of now,” is devoted to performing contemporary works.
The Performing Arts Series of Johnson County Community College will present the ensemble and Native American flutist Robert Mirabal Feb. 24 in a program inspired by something many of us take for granted: water.
The mythical meaning of water and our planet’s dependence on it will be celebrated and explored. Ethel and the Grammy-winning Mirabal promise an immersive evening of music, narrative and ritual.
Lied Center Tours
The Lied Center of Kansas is taking its show on the road.
Lied Across Kansas is a new program that brings Lied Center artists to communities across the state that don’t normally have access to great performances. For example, the program is bringing choreographer Erik Kaiel and his company Arch 8 to Hays, Wetmore, Russell, Sabetha and Salina throughout the month of February.
To find out more about Lied Across Kansas, visit https://tinyurl.com/hqxxlh6.