Espressivo Ensemble’s Mahler

By Scott MacClelland

ESPRESSIVO advisory board spokesperson Beth Hollenbeck addressed the audience at Peace United Church with bad news. There weren’t enough program handouts to satisfy the 300 concertgoers who turned out to hear Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. (Several offered theirs to those wanting.)

The question was not one of bad news, but rather why so many? Did they come because it was music by Mahler, who has long been absent from local orchestral concerts? Did they come because it was his celebrated “Song of the Earth,” the one-hour song cycle that Leonard Bernstein called “Mahler’s greatest symphony”? (Bernstein was right; you can see/hear all the classical symphonic forms at work.)

Das Lied was first and last heard in the Monterey Bay region when Haymo Taeuber conducted the Monterey Symphony in 1976—40 years ago. (At the time, he called it Mahler’s “most precious” work.)

This was only the second concert by Espressivo, a chamber orchestra founded by Michel Singher that debuted last September. Born in 1940, the Felton resident has had major musical careers in the US and Europe. For his 15-member ensemble, Singher used a reduction by Arnold Schoenberg from Mahler’s full score. (It was completed after Schoenberg’s death by Rainer Riehn). The reduced score magically captures the spirit and, indeed, essential power of the original with a string quintet, a wind quintet (including horn), piano, percussion and, in this case, synthesized harmonium/celesta. The solo singers were tenor Adam Klein and mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, both with major operatic careers. In Das Lied, a collection of ancient Tang Dynasty Chinese poetry translated into German, the tenor gets all the wild stuff, from the opening “Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow” to “The Drunkard in Spring,” while the mezzo gets the solitary and disillusioned, from “The Lonely One in Autumn” to the long final “Farewell” interrupted by a purely orchestral interlude that opens a window into the composer’s own heartache.

Each also gets a lighter, more playful moment, the tenor in “Youth” (where Mahler brings in Chinese musical allusions) and the mezzo in “Beauty,” an image of young girls picking flowers while yearnings of first love make the prettiest of them suffer “tumult of the heart” when she sees the dashing young horseman by the opposite shore. (Mahler’s riding music whinnies like the horse it describes.)

For the first and last of his songs, I complimented Klein as a “great drunk.” He sang with swaggering command in parts that lie high up in his range. Mahler makes it no less challenging for the mezzo because he actually had in mind a contralto’s extended lower range. Yet her part is the soul of the piece—and the composer’s own personal despair as well. Mentzer told me she had sung the work with Mahler’s full orchestral score but, “fortunately,” from a stage with the orchestra down in a pit. Still, and despite a formidable contest with the small orchestra, she conveyed the poetry with circumspect yet deep-felt Fukshansky-Roman-2014-Clarinetexpression.

Not only did the full house reward the performance with a sustained standing ovation—shared I’m sure by the composer, this work, the performers and their conductor’s insightful vision. Singher’s thinned-out orchestra achieved a remarkable soundscape, abetted by Peace United’s encouraging acoustics. But the real hero of the night was clarinetist Roman Fukshansky—pictured—who came in after the last rehearsal when the original player abruptly withdrew and sight-read the entire piece. The clarinet—three of them used here—is always a crucial voice in Mahler’s orchestral music. When, after the performance, I remarked to him that ‘of course’ he had played it before, he said, “I wish I had.” His fellow musicians were all abuzz about his triumph.

Espressivo’s equally enticing next program, in early April at the new Colligan Theater, puts the even-rarer Pierrot Lunaire by Schoenberg together with Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat.