Presenting new music with Mahler in mind

Composer Steven Mackey (center) talks with flutist Mimi Stillman, founder of the Dolce Suono Ensemble, and soloist Eric Owens during rehearsals. Mackey wrote one of the five pieces commissioned for the concert.
Composer Steven Mackey (center) talks with flutist Mimi Stillman, founder of the Dolce Suono Ensemble, and soloist Eric Owens during rehearsals. Mackey wrote one of the five pieces commissioned for the concert. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

The Dolce Suono Ensemble performed along with star soloist Eric Owens.

Posted: May 13, 2011

Quoting Gustav Mahler is not a wholesome activity for composers, if only because you can't give his music a cameo appearance and expect to move on. You want to hear the entire Mahler piece being quoted. The memory more than lingers.

But quoting was inevitable at Wednesday's "Mahler100/Schoenberg60" concert by Mimi Stillman's Dolce Suono Ensemble in three of the five new works commissioned for the occasion. Most were songs, ostensibly, but with ambitions - and a sense of drama from the star soloist, bass Eric Owens, that often suggested operatic scenes for chamber ensemble and voice.

Art songs tend to create an emotional world around a central emotional state. These pieces were full of musical travel; in Ewigkeit, David Ludwig didn't quote Mahler but began with a sense of anguish that led to a funeral-march rhythm more freighted with Ludwigian anxiety than Mahlerian resignation. In later passages, solo piano writing wandered plaintively in search of a key signature. Very effective.

The best of the new pieces was Song of Sorrow by Chinese composer Fang Man, which used the 8th-century verse of Li Bai, whom Mahler accessed in Das Lied von der Erde in German translation. The text used in the new piece went back to the original Chinese, in words dealing with political as well as emotional betrayal; vocal lines were stately, while the instrumental writing showed restless invention.

In the Mahler-quoting works, damage was variable. The one instrumental piece, Nepenthe by Stratis Minakakis, only needed to quote two notes from Mahler's Symphony No. 9 to distract the ear from his own somewhat abstract and fitful music. The best-known composer, Steven Stucky, quoted Mahler so extensively in Aus der Jungendzeit (with text by Friedrich Ruckert) that you barely heard his voice at all. The majority of the music seemed to be Mahler's, mostly from Das Lied von der Erde, the main benefit being that Owens sang bits of Mahler repertoire that might not normally come his way, being slightly out of his vocal type.

The one quotation that worked did so because of its irreverence. Steven Mackey's Herr Gutmann drew from a letter Mahler wrote demanding proper rehearsal time for his Symphony No. 8. One of that symphony's more sublime melodies gave the words an almost humorous depth of drama, the music speaking of lofty things, the words building up to a diva fit. The music then moved into rock-influenced rhythm confronting the thoughts at hand. Good fun - maybe more so if the comic timing is fine-tuned.

The rest of the concerts were Mahler and Schoenberg - for real. Though the stress of learning new music sometimes showed in Owens' performances, Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer in Schoenberg's chamber-ensemble reduction showed the master at work. The Wagnerian amplitude Owens has acquired in recent years was used sparingly but effectively, particularly in suicide threats of the third song. His upper range was entrancingly full of subtle new colors in the final song. Schoenberg himself was heard in his Six Little Piano Pieces (Op. 19) played by Charles Abramovic, parts of which are so quiet as to fade into obscurity. Not a great choice of repertoire.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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