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Endless, the White Clouds

Farewell in Chinese characters
The idea of the Friday evening concert by the Post-Classical Ensemble at the Clarice Smith Center, The Song of the Earth, was an alluring one. The kernel of the idea goes back two years to a concert the group gave at the Austrian Embassy, which combined a performance of Gustav Mahler's magnificent, melancholy, exalted song Der Abschied with the Chinese poetry that inspired it. The new program brings together Mahler's song with a newly commissioned piece based on the same Chinese poems, by Chinese-American composer Zhou Long (b. 1953). This may eventually be a lucrative idea, too, given the success of the Silk Road Project. The last gasp of winter Friday night may have accounted for some of the empty seats among the respectably sized crowd.

Shortly after the tragic death of his daughter in 1907, Mahler began to read a collection of medieval Chinese poetry called Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), given to him by Theobald Pollak. Or, rather, he read Hans Bethge's German poetic paraphrases (Nachdichtungen) of Hans Heilman's German translations of earlier French translations of classic Chinese poems. Further taking Mahler away from any real contact with the Chinese originals, the composer freely adapted the text of the final song, Der Abschied, by combining two poems by Meng Haoran and Wang Wei and even adding his own words. It is true that Mahler did make some studies of traditional Chinese instruments and scales -- Henry-Louis de la Grange (of the Bibliothèque Gustav Mahler), in an essay on Das Lied von der Erde, adds that Mahler apparently listened to phonograph cylinders made in China and kept at the University of Vienna. Tellingly, however, when Chinese listeners were asked at the post-concert discussion if Mahler's song sounded more Chinese when heard next to Chinese music, the consensus was, in one man's words, "It is not Chinese, but it is still beautiful."

Zhou Long, composerPerhaps to give an idea of what Mahler may have heard on those cylinders, guest artists Min Xiao-fen and Wang Guowei played three selections on pipa and erhu, respectively. These pieces were labeled in the program only as "Traditional Chinese Music," whatever that means (century? region of origin? notated when, if ever?), as if no other information were required. They were beautifully performed, with the musicians in spotlights on the darkened stage and the back wall lit in a soft blue. Shi Hong Aldin's recitation of the original poems Mahler adapted exaggerated the tonic qualities of the Chinese language, expressly to make a point. The language, of course, had minimal influence on Mahler, but it was used directly in the new composition by Zhou Long, The Farewell. In the post-concert discussion the composer stated that he had based melodic motives in the work on the tonic sounds of the poem, as he heard them, as well as on a Chinese tune about bidding farewell. The effect was ethereal, with feathery strings and whispered percussion. As usual, there was an uneasy quasi-harmony between the orchestral instruments and the Chinese ones, as Chinese themes received a halo of dissonant chords.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Post-Classical Ensemble (Washington Post, March 19)
The Post-Classical Ensemble is to be thanked for bringing to our ears an unidentified arrangement of Der Abschied for chamber orchestra, made for a 1921 concert sponsored by Arnold Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances. Aside from a couple painful notes from the French horn and oboe/English horn, the performance was strong. Conductor Angel Gil-Ordoñez guided his forces well, making sure to bring the instrumental volume down as much as possible whenever mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler sang. What you gain in transparency with the chamber arrangement, you also lose in fullness of Mahlerian swells. It allows a smaller group to perform this memorable and tragic song, which is what Schoenberg wanted, but this listener at least cannot help but dream of the full score.

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