“Mahler in Chinatown” is an ambiguous title for a promising free concert in the penultimate week of New England Conservatory’s ambitious “Mahler Unleashed” series. It takes place at 7:00 pm on Tuesday, November 29. The program’s organizer, Anthony Coleman, derived the title from his reading of Mahler’s experiences venturing into New York’s Chinatown with the great Russian basso Chaliapin during their collaboration at the Metropolitan Opera, “in order to drown their sorrows in Chinese tea and to commiserate about those pesky rules that didn’t allow these Europeans, who were accustomed to their words being taken as law, to rehearse as long and as often as they wished. …”
Gustav and Alma Mahler “got to know both the city and an assortment of its occupants, … they toured the city’s ethnic quarters, among them an underworld Chinatown with an opium den and a teeming Lower East Side Jewish quarter whose inhabitants Mahler could scarcely see as ‘our own sort of people.’ … ‘Are these our brothers?’ he asked Alma. ‘Can it be that there are only class and not race distinctions?’” wrote Stuart Feder in Gustav Mahler: a life in crisis.
With this background forming part of his understanding of what it means to be a musical stranger, Coleman, the director of NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation Department (founded by Gunther Schuller in 1973), offered an explanation for Tuesday’s concert:
What happens when Classical Music misses its subway stop and gets off at Improvisation? In this concert, NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation and Jazz departments cross paths with their classical colleagues. The virtuosi of NEC’s conductor-less Chamber Orchestra provide a foundation for the imagination of MacArthur Foundation Fellow Jason Moran — the familiar Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 will appear in an unfamiliar, new light. Another NEC MacArthur Fellow, Ran Blake, creates a film of Mahler’s life at the piano keys. Improvising singers add fresh ingredients to Mahler songs. Would Mahler recognize his own music? As a composer haunted by a wide variety of sounds, would he feel right at home?
The NEC website here describes how a wide array of “improvising” and “classical” musicians will combine forces on a program including adaptations, derangements and selections from the following works of Mahler:
Mahler, third movement of Symphony No. 3, re-composition by Contemporary Improvisation ensemble Survivors’ Breakfast coached by Anthony Coleman, with interpretation of posthorn solo
Ran Blake, Mahler Noir, re-composition/solo piano performance based on Blake’s storyboarding of important events in Mahler’s life
I. Death Gong
III. Death of Maria
IV. Auf Wiedersehen Wien
V. The Last Boat Trip: New York to France
VI. Flashback and Death
Mahler, “St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish,” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, re-composition by Eden MacAdam-Somer, performed by Sarah Jarosz, vocals and mandolin; Eden MacAdam-Somer, violin and vocals; Vesela Stoyanova, MIDI marimba and vocals; Valerie Thompson, cello and vocals; Jeffrey Balter, drums and percussion
Fain/Kahal, I’ll Be Seeing You, performed by Tanya Kalmanovitch, viola; Ted Reichman, accordion; Anthony Coleman, piano.
The standard by American songwriter Sammy Fain and lyricist Irving Kahal opens with melodic material that closely resembles a passage of the last movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.
Mahler, excerpts from Symphony No. 4, re-composition/performance by Fausto Sierakowski, saxophone, and Andrew Clinkman, guitar
Mahler, selections arranged by Schoenberg from Das Lied von der Erde
On Youth Maria Kim, vocalist
On Beauty Natalie Cadet, vocalist
Drunk in Spring Nedelka Prescod, vocalist
NEC Wind Ensemble, Charles Peltz, conductor
Bruce Brubaker Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, performed by Huijuan Pan, piano; Yoojin Park, violin; Chia-Hui Hung, viola; Seungwon Chung, cello