martingale ensemble

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN

MAHLER: The Song of the Earth (MSR Classics)
Martingale Ensemble directed by Ken Selden

In the summer of 1907, a friend gave Gustav Mahler a copy of Hans Bethge’s “The Chinese Flute,” a collection of German translations and adaptations of Chinese poetry. The German translations of these poems well suited the great Austrian composer’s state of mind, his philosophy of life and death, and his desire to live fully and accept death – not without regret – but rather with the inevitability that there may also be renewal.

In fact, many Mahler works relate to his ever-present thoughts on death and on the meaning of the many beauties that exist in nature. No greater work by Mahler so amplifies these thoughts to us, for us, and on behalf of us all, than his setting of these poems, “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”). If there is joy in loving life and knowing death, it is in the intense passion, excitement, ecstasy and loneliness exhibited in such a work as this.

This symphony-song cycle’s six movements in many ways represent the apotheosis of what solo voices can do matched with an orchestra whereby both protagonists – voice and orchestra – are on a completely equal footing. And the added interpretation of a text brings yet another level of dimension to this piece that can rarely be equaled by any other work in the repertoire of this kind.

martingale-ensemble-das-lied

In the first of the songs Mahler set to music, for example, one stunning line of text closes off each of three stanzas: “Dark is life; dark is death.” After concluding the first phrase of this text in G Minor, Mahler drives the tension of this repeated text higher by repeating it in Ab minor, followed again but repeated in A minor as the movement concludes. This is so awesome. G-G#-A… the sequence of tones used frequently enough as an accompanying motive behind other major ideas, but now employed at a macro level. Was it planned, or did his genius just inevitably lead his ear to do this as a major structural element for the piece? It’s part of what makes this opening song a totally unforgettable experience.

Mahler originally scored “Song of the Earth” for a full orchestra with tenor and baritone voices alternating in each of the six movements. (Although the role of the tenor can be performed by a mezzo/alto instead, we know that he preferred male voices for his music.) But can a version for a much smaller ensemble compare to the power of Mahler’s original vision for large ensemble? This new recording by Portland State University music professor Ken Selden and a 14-member ensemble of top-rank Oregon classical musicians provides the answer.

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Filmusik in the Park: Gamera vs. Zigra from Filmusik on Vimeo.

The best things in life are free, especially in the summer. There’s French music (Debussy, Faure, 20th century classical/jazz crossover composer Claude Bolling, et plus in a free show Saturday at southeast Portland’s Community Music Center, courtesy of flutist Robert Beall and his colleagues. Or you can head over to nearby Sewallcrest Park to hear Willamette Radio Workshop voice actors dub corny English dialogue over a screening of the 1971 Japanese monster flick Gamera vs. Zigra. The free screening is part of Portland’s Filmusik series, which pairs composers and musicians with old films and results in new, original live soundtracks. This original score is written by one of Oregon’s most promising young composers, Justin Ralls, founder of Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project.

Beyond that, this weekend again looks sparse for classical music events in Oregon, with the biggest being the annual William Byrd Festival’s closing liturgical service (Saturday night’s performance of the English Renaissance composer’s magnificent Mass for Four Voices) and concert  (Sunday night’s survey of motets and anthems by Byrd and some his English colleagues). English organist Mark Williams conducts the excellent Portland choir Cantores in Ecclesia in both performances.

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