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 firstname.lastname@example.org.