The PostClassical Ensemble tried another big hit for its latest program, heard Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. A chamber ensemble of fourteen musicians, energetically led by Angel Gil-Ordóñez, provided the great orchestral music of Gustav Mahler. The intentions were good, but the results left much to be desired.
Concert producer Joseph Horowitz explained that the focus of the concert was Mahler’s incorporation of Jewish musical ideas into his symphonies and songs, heard first in excerpts and later in a full symphony. The clearest example was the opening element, a snippet of the crashing folk music passages in the majestic third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony. A solemn mock funeral march, the piece may have been inspired by a whimsical woodcut by Moritz von Schwind, depicting a hunter’s funeral procession made up of animals.
Without trumpets and only two percussionists, this lively music, often considered to evoke a klezmer group, has lost some of its zest. Clarinetist Garrick Zoeter and oboist Fatma Daglar sang convincingly. The march, itself based on the children’s song “Bruder Jakob”, returned briefly, but the excerpt ended before Mahler quoted his own song “Die zwei blauen Augen” (from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen).
Instead, we then heard the first song in this collection, “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht,” as the desperate narrator cries alone in his bedroom on his beloved’s wedding day. (Perhaps Mahler’s use of this Jewish folk group music in the First Symphony is a reference to the sounds of the wedding feast.) Gil-Ordóñez arranged the song for the same chamber ensemble, with the trombonist unconventional bass David Taylor taking the vocal part like an instrumentalist.
Taylor has done something extremely weird and clownish out of this song, using a piston to bend her tone into kvetching blasts of self-pity. Sometimes he would sing through the trombone at the same time, creating a plaintive moan. Mahler wrote in high notes, including as a bird sings on green heather (“Ziküth! Ziküth!”), and most of that part of the song has been lost entirely.
The main event was the less compelling, a chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony performed mostly by Klaus Simon. While the Fourth Symphony is relatively small in orchestration, at least among this composer’s output, memories of the excellent performance of the complete score by the National Symphony Orchestra in February made this reduction even smaller.
Where Mahler used chamber-like combinations, the first movement mostly worked, with fine woodwind playing, from violinist Netanel Draiblate, and especially from principal ONS horn player Abel Pereira. With limited percussion and brass, the wide climaxes missed the mark, but at least the iconic sleigh bells were included.
David Taylor was back for the second movement, given here as the world premiere of an arrangement for bass trombone, titled Mahlerei by its creators, Horowitz and Gil-Ordóñez. According to Alma Mahler, this movement was inspired by Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Violin by Arnold Böcklin. In this version, Taylor took most of the devilish solo violin part from the scordature, depicting death at hand, albeit more awkwardly than the instrument Mahler intended.
As Horowitz put it, the trombone “cannibalizes” several different parts of the score, usually transposed down an octave or two. The emphasis was therefore again much more on the joker side of the scherzo, with some intonation problems adding to the sense of parody. After moving from his position as a soloist to the back row of the ensemble, Taylor played himself backstage.
The prolonged slow movement suffered the most in this adaptation, unsustainable even at a faster tempo than one often hears. Individual instrumental contributions were often outstanding, but the massive sweep of sound required at times could only be rough.
We can only express our gratitude to the high school student who courageously stepped in to replace her indisposed classmate in the soprano solo of the last movement. The results, unsurprisingly, were well below professional standards, which might have made simply omitting the move a better choice.