Pianist Jenny Q Chai at (le) Poisson Rouge
White Light Festival: Mary Chapin Carpenter and Cameron Carpenter

White Light Festival: Song of the Earth

by Michael Cirigliano II

Song of the Earth Feast of Music Lincoln Center White Light Festival

Although scheduled many months in advance, Sunday night’s White Light Festival program at Rose Theater could not have been more apropos, with Emanuel Ax joining forces with New York Philharmonic musicians for an intense reading of Arnold Schoenberg’s chamber-orchestra transcription of Gustav Mahler’s towering Das Lied von der Erde. A symphony for orchestra, tenor, and mezzo-soprano, Das Lied uses Chinese folk poetry to communicate man’s difficult relationship with nature—an eternal conflict of perspective that mankind itself is only able to wrestle with for a brief period of time.

With the floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy continuing to recede, and the threat of another storm approaching the tri-state area in the coming week, New York City is seldom humbled as it has been by nature over the past year. The destruction recently felt by all metropolitan residents echoed Mahler’s own sorrows while composing Das Lied, having recently suffered the death of one of his daughters, as well as the diagnosis of his fatal heart condition.

Schoenberg began his transcription of Mahler’s work as a member of the Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna, reducing the titanic orchestra to an ensemble of 13 players plus the solo voices. Whereas Mahler’s score gives weight to the collective human struggle against nature’s fury, Schoenberg’s delicate transcription makes greater use of the isolated voices: with solo strings and plaintive winds coalescing with the tenor and mezzo soloists in incredibly interwoven fashion.

Leading the ensemble, Matthias Pintscher paved the way for brisk tempi that made great use of tenor Russell Thomas’ agile voice, especially in the dramatic opening movement, "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" (“Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow”). Thomas was captivating throughout, filling the hall with his heldentenor timbre without ever forcing, even in his uppermost register. Sharing the spotlight were suave performances from oboist Liang Wang and clarinetist Pascual Martinez Forteza—brilliant soloists throughout, sculpting each of Mahler’s delicate phrases with no signs of endurance problems, even during the 30-minute final movement.

Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford didn’t fare nearly as well, a grave disappointment given the emotional importance of her solo movements. Moving through each phrase with an overwrought vibrato and quizzical look on her face, her performance lacked conviction and the necessary diction needed to convey such powerful texts. Her finest moments came when pitted in her husky lower register, momentarily conveying the profound sorrow of the isolated speaker in the grave final movement, "Der Abscheid" (“The Farewell”) 

Opening the program was Emanuel Ax’s rendition of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat minor and Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke. A graceful performance of the Prelude gave way to a clunky and awkward fugue, with many of the prominent voices banged, rather than coaxed, from the piano.

Thankfully, the Mahler delivered on almost all accounts, and as the mezzo’s final text—“The dear earth everywhere blooms in spring and grows green afresh! Everywhere and eternally, distant places have blue skies! Eternally...”—rang through the hall, the audience was reminded that the propulsive power of natures rages on, but the Earth goes on just as powerfully, perpetually renewing and repairing itself.