“Mahler in Chinatown” was the program title given an uncommon concert, bringing together New England Conservatory’s chamber orchestra, wind ensemble, and members of the contemporary improvisation department (formerly known as “Third Stream”) on Tuesday, November 29 at Jordan Hall. You can find an explanation of that unusual title and other information about the concert here.
Years ago, I invited my next door neighbor to hear one of the major proponents of Third Stream, Ran Blake. After a few bars into a familiar standard out of Tin Pan Alley, pianist Blake surprised us with a sharply crunched cluster of keys from out of the blue. “I get it,” said my friend, new to this kind music. “That’s Third Stream.”
Somewhat in the same vein, all eleven pieces on the “Mahler in Chinatown” program were tied to Mahler in such a way that on exiting Jordan Hall, Marcel Duchamps’s L.H.O.O.Q. came to mind. (L.H.O.O.Q. is one of the most well known spoofs on a high icon of art; Duchamps drew a moustache on a postcard of the Mona Lisa and gave it a title not printable here, but readily available on another website.) Replacing the Mona Lisa with the music of Gustav Mahler, NEC collaborators continued the Conservatory’s festival, “Mahler Unleashed: 100 Years Later, His Time Is Now,” in a quasi-Dadaist mode.
Mahler’s music with a moustache?
Serving as the pillars of the intermission-less hour-and-half show, three of Mahler’s best known and most enjoyed songs from Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) were interspersed among the eleven pieces. Singing in English, jazz vocalists fuzzed “On Youth,” “On Beauty,” and “Drunk in Spring.” Conductor Charles Peltz and his chamber orchestra huddled in a rear corner of the stage in darkness; the music stands provided the only light. Barefooted and casually attired, the three soloists rekindled Mahler’s vocal lines, choosing cool jazz inflection carrying little vibrato. They also “danced,” near non-existent and naïve choreography disappointing to 21st-century expectations. But Peltz and his chamber orchestra of NEC students handled Arnold Schoenberg’s arrangements to a T, casting over the hall a Mahler spell, admirably colorful and desirably expressive.
It was with a certain amount of apprehension that I anticipated a mustachioed Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, an all-time favorite of mine. The promised piano improvisation from a gum-chewing Jason Moran could hardly be heard. The harmony preceding the final reprise of that ever-so soulfully yearning melody took a “new” turn: the orchestra put a fermata over the chord and held on to it forever as though to recognize a piano cadenza that was not to be.
A trio of students and faculty billed its entry, “I’ll Be Seeing You…taken from Symphony No. 3, last movement.” Beginning and ending in silence, as so many current works are framed, the trio played the “ambiguous relationship between the symphony and the popular song. Mahler through a shattered 20th-century lens.” The soft and softer-still sounds over a short span may have hinted at more than the mi-re-re-do-ti-do that both compositions have in common for their opening moves. I very clearly heard these tones in the accordion, but instead of the notes being sounded linearly, they piled on top of each other — un objet trouvé in the middle of the unknown?
Faculty member Anthony Coleman led an ensemble of fourteen instruments who call themselves “Survivor’s Breakfast.” Together, Coleman and the performers “recomposed” the third movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony by reducing it to three obvious sections resulting in a low brow Klezmer simulation that degraded Mahler — but not like Duchamp — causing me to wonder what purpose lay behind it all.
Take Mahler out of Mahler. Do you still have Mahler? Are the sounds that faculty member Bruce Brubaker selectively extracted from the Ninth Symphony enough? While I did find shadows of darkness and lightness by turns, his minimalized piano quartet unsettlingly entitled Bruce Brubakers’s Mahler’s Ninth Symphony settled on too little rhythmic momentum. The student performance did not help, being strident too much of the time.
The “re-composition” of “St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn lent itself to some fun and a one-time journey that would be fairly entertaining. Vocals, mandolin, violin, cello, MIDI marimba, and percussion re-colored Mahler’s frisky song.
Setting the trajectory for “Mahler in Chinatown,” eight trombones situated in the balcony led off with an Ode to Joy that was far from just being mustachioed. A crescendo of indeterminate utterances would finally break open into brief but powerful strains of Beethoven’s easily recognizable harmonies. Following this, an accelerando of utterances mimicking each other put a Picabia goatee on a near faceless Beethoven. Then Ran Blake improvised Mahler noir. Focusing on harmony and different musical genres, he blurred them mostly through a hefty use of the damper pedal. Mahler noir made the most sense when imagined as a soundtrack for a Hollywood movie.
The immense stature of Gustav Mahler’s music only diminished the vast majority of the various re-compositions, deconstructions, and improvisations delivered by NEC students and faculty.