In 1969, the 24-year-old winner of the Koussevitzky prize at the Tanglewood Music Center -- the highest honor for a student conductor at the prestigious music school -- was summoned to the corner of 79th Street and Park Avenue in New York. The young man was received by his host, Leonard Bernstein, with conversation and music-making, whereupon the great composer-conductor asked, “If you could keep one moment in all of music, what would it be?” The wunderkind thought for a moment, went to the piano, and rendered oscillating thirds, followed by a beautiful, lonely oboe solo.
That wunderkind was Michael Tilson Thomas. The musical passage was from “Der Abschied” of Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” which happened to be Bernstein’s favorite moment in all of music. A monumental American musical relationship was forged.
Beginning Wednesday at Davies Symphony Hall, Thomas, along with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Simon O’Neill and the San Francisco Symphony, perform Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth), considered by many the most personal, and perhaps, finest work the Austrian master ever penned.
While many classical performances are today criticized for impregnable focus on details of the score, it is fitting that what Bernstein loved most was the ambiguous, the world left to the imagination. As Claude Debussy once said, “Music is the space between the notes.”
This rings especially true of “Das Lied von der Erde,” a symphonic work with long, seemingly simple stretches of sung poetry and little else. It is heartbreaking music, to any generation, dependent as much on extra-musical devices as the notation itself.
“In between the notes has to do with the feeling of temperature and aura, time and breath, even how the body feels on stage. It’s a matter of energy,” says Cooke, 33, who first heard the work performed by Anne Sophie von Otter at Carnegie Hall in April of 1999.
“For the mezzo, there’s a lethargic burdensome heaviness in her entrance -- and if you sing without this, then between the notes, it will not speak. You can sing the pitches, but the real music won't come through. The singer might see, ‘Ah, it’s a crescendo,’ but it’s not a crescendo -- it’s actually referring to an emotional landscape. With Mahler, emotions, sentiment and intent are paramount.”
Mahler, a complicated man of dualities -- “I am thrice homeless,” he once said, “as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world” -- struggled mightily with the question of what might be after he was gone. “Das Lied von der Erde” contains philosophical ponderings from Hans Bethge’s translations of The Chinese Flute, woven perfectly into the tapestry of Mahlerian orchestration. While composing the piece in 1909, Mahler was combating health problems of his own, as well as those of his family. He edited the work to render it more personal.
“Der Einsame im Herbst” is a conversation about death, with a lot of imagery throughout. Mahler relates to death here through nature, a source of relief, pain, longing and consolation: “Sonne der Liebe willst du nie mehr scheinen” ("Sun of love, will you no longer shine”). The meaning of these feelings is evident because they're not directly said; Mahler puts the music's internal struggle and longing beneath the text. "It’s also difficult to sing, in some ways. You can’t be precious, you can’t get tight," says Cooke. "You have to sing with all of yourself, even though it’s in a very piano color. Up until the end, it stays in a somber place, and you have to sing with a restrained quality without feeling held.”
The six-movement piece lasts nearly an hour, and juxtaposes youth, beauty and sensuality with the acceptance of death and meaninglessness. The introspective final movement, “Der Abschied” -- Thomas and Bernstein’s shared moment -- spans 30 minutes.
“I always feel I can’t get enough oxygen at the transformative ending of 'Der Abschied,'” says Cooke. "It’s something about the vocal writing and the way the music sweeps you. You’ve been standing for 25 minutes of moving, powerful music, and it’s hard to get grounded -- it’s not necessarily breath, as Mahler does this pretty well -- but it’s overwhelming emotionally. By the time you get to the final 'Ewig' (Farewell), you've gone through the torment and the darkness, and you feel you can float.”
For some, it is the farewell of a monumental composer, who believed he was the last embodiment of the great German musical tradition. Mahler, tragically, never lived to hear his magnum opus outside of his own head.
“Mahler explores all sides of the human condition informed by his own personal struggles, and in the end, you are lifted off your feet," says Cooke. "It's truly revelatory and uplifting in that way. He brings great meaning to life, and more importantly, accepts that without the bad there would not be the good.”
In December 1994, four years after the death of his mentor, Michael Tilson Thomas delivered a speech at Bernstein’s home on the occasion of his 50th birthday. “Everything that Leonard Bernstein, my parents and generations of American artists fought for is in danger of being lost," he said. "And we have to make sure that this does not happen."
Beginning Wednesday, the conversation between Mahler, Bernstein and Thomas about life, death and meaning, continues in “Das Lied von der Erde” -- between the notes.
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts 'The Song of the Earth' beginning Wednesday, April 6, at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. Tickets and more information here.