“Mahler in Progress” with Argento New Music Project

(brief notes made after watching the stream)

Wednesday, April 20, 2022 | 8 PM
Cary Hall, DiMenna Center

Songs by Alma Mahler with text from Alma & Gustav Mahler’s letters

Laue Sommernacht
Ich wandle unter Blumen

Ariadne Greif, voice, Mun-Tzung Wong, piano, and Piers Playfair, narrator

Alma Mahler’s songs are filled with astonishing harmonies, somewhere next to Reger and Zemlinsky. In this semi-staged rendition by the Argento New Music Project, letters written between Alma and Gustav are read between the songs. Gustav is condescending towards Alma, and insists that she give up composition if they are to be wed. Alma agrees, and we lose a composer to the old-fashioned convention of “helpmeet.” This unique presentation has remarkable impact. Greif, Wong, and Playfair played their roles superbly.

Patricia Alessandrini

Canto d’Alma (2018/2020) for soprano, chamber ensemble, and electronics.

Ariadne Greif, soprano, Patricia Alessandrini, electronics, and Argento ensemble

Alessandrini composed this short but substantial mediation specifically for Argento New Music Project inspired by both Alma Mahler’s story and Alma Mahler’s Fünf Lieder. The electronics are quite subtle, with most of the desolate, moaning, disturbing soundscape created by conventional instruments. On top of that nameless horror, Greif’s wordless vocal appears from an infinite distance.

Gustav Mahler

“Purgatorio” and “Scherzo: Nicht zu schnell” from Symphony no. 10, completed by Michel Galante (2022) for 15 musicians (World Premiere)

I confess I don’t know the Symphony no. 10 of Mahler in any of its varied forms or completions. The chamber arrangement is virtuosic and engaging, although I suppose it “lands differently” after the marital Mahler letters at the start of the program. All five moments completed by Galante for this instrumentation will premiere with Argento next season. Brad Siroky was heroic in the exposed trumpet part.

Sang Song

Gretel (2021) for ensemble

I. To the Little House – New York premiere
II. Vein of Shame – World premiere
III. Kindertotenmusik – New York premiere

The second half of the concert focused on Sang Song’s investigation of parricide. His notes explain further:

Gretel is in three movements, the first of which is given the subtitle “To the Little House.” The name “Gretel” in the title, of course, refers to the little sister in Hansel and Gretel. As the absence of her brother’s name in the title suggests, however, this work is far from being a retelling of the classic fairy tale. It is well known that fairy tales are often tinged with dark—even gruesome—undertones. Hansel and Gretel is not an exception: it features heartless parents, attempts at cannibalism and a virtual auto-da-fé. But this 19th century fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm may have an even grimmer undertone.

The original 1812 version of Hansel and Gretel concludes as follows:

“Der Vater freute sich als er sie wieder sah, er hatte keinen vergnügten Tag gehabt, seit seine Kinder fort waren, und ward nun ein reicher Mann. Die Mutter aber war gestorben.”

(“The father rejoiced when he saw them once more, for he had not had a happy day since they had been gone, and now he was a rich man. The mother, however, had died.”)

The cause of the mother’s death is not mentioned in the story, prompting some commentators to propose that she and the witch are (metaphorically?) the same person—with the implication that Gretel may have committed (metaphorical?) matricide when she pushed the witch into the fiery oven.

The second movement, an interlude entitled “Vein of Shame,” begins and ends with theplayback of recordings from the 1993 trial of the Menendez Brothers, who brutally murdered their parents a few years earlier. During the nationally-televised first trial, the brothers’ lawyers introduced the so-called battered-child syndrome as a defense: Lyle and Erik Menendez committed the murders as a result of years of sexual and emotional abuse by their parents. (The “abuse excuse” was not allowed in the retrial and the brothers were subsequently found guilty.)

The third movement, entitled “Kindertotenmusik,” alludes to, and includes quotations from, Gustav Mahler’s 1904 song cycle Kindertotenlieder. The quotes are from the last song “In diesem Wetter!” (“In this weather!”) and are limited to the music roughly corresponding to Mahler’s setting of the following line:

“Sie ruh’n als wie in der Mutter Haus.” (“They’re at peace as if in their mother’s house.”)

In this song, a father berates himself for having allowed his children out in a storm and then tries to take solace in the belief that they are resting like something that could have gone through the mind of Hansel and Gretel’s father? If we can make a connection between Kindertotenlieder and Hansel and Gretel in this manner, then maybe we can also add the Menendez Brothers’ case to the mix by imagining Hansel and Gretel making a journey to the witch-mother’s house to avenge themselves for the abuse they had sustained in the past. (Incidentally, while the German word “Kindertotenlieder” is often translated as “Songs on the Death of Children,” the German expression is quite ambiguous in that it can denote anything relating to children and death.)

By pulling these three seemingly disparate threads together, Gretel attempts to give you a glimpse of how one’s childlike innocence gets destroyed, leaving a deep, indelible scar in the individual’s psyche.

— Sang Song

The music begins slowly, the noises of Gretel’s wood suggested by percussion and rustling strings. Spare piano octaves almost find a tune, which gradually gets reinforced by the ensemble. The tension rises gracefully and naturally, with the piano remaining in charge of the stark melodic argument. I like Song’s harmonic ear, it is dissonant but quite precise. A kind of macabre polka concludes the narrative.

As explained in the notes, the second movement has audio from the Menendez trial. Can modernist chamber music really elucidate this discussion or command this terrain? Song does his best, or in this case, his worst, with horrifying slithers in the strings, clusters in the piano, and an innocent woodwind theme that soon becomes debased.

Eventually sharp “shots” from the musicians are juxtaposed against the initial 911 call, a transition to the Mahler quote from Kindertotenlieder, a tune that then cycles in a lonely fashion against the “guns” of the strings.

“Mahler in Progress” makes good on its promise to curate a contemporary program that dialogues with the past in a provocative way.