dal niente’s reductionist take on Mahler’s “Das Lied” offers mixed success

Sun Feb 28, 2010 at 12:15 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Ensemble dal niente performed Saturday night at Gottlieb Hall.

A vibrant musical city needs vigorous small groups as well as big international ensembles, and Chicago is blessed with a wealth of both. One of the city’s newest smaller organizations is ensemble dal niente, formed in 2004 to focus on 20th- and 21st-century music. Its hip young players have presented programs that range from newly commissioned pieces to music of such giants as Morton Feldman and Gyorgy Ligeti.

Saturday night at the Merit School of Music’s Gottlieb Hall, dal niente offered a look at works reaarranged by other hands. The program opened with Stravinsky’s brief Concertino for 12 instruments, his 1952 transformation of a string quartet he had composed 32 years earlier. Immediately following came Schoenberg’s chamber transcription of Mahler’s mighty Das Lied von der Erde. Using six Chinese poems as his text, Mahler scored the work for tenor, contralto and large orchestra in 1911. In 1921 Schoenberg made a partial transcription of it, which composer Rainer Riehn completed in 1983.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Schoenberg made several transcriptions of other composers’ work, including a lushly expressive orchestral arrangement of Brahms’ G minor piano quartet, Op. 25. Schoenberg had a keen ear for musical color, and dal niente’s performance had some lovely moments. At the start of the final, elegiac poem, titled Der Abschied (The Farewell), the ominous tolling of Daniel Pesca’s piano filled the hall with a sense of thick, slowly descending fog. As mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley said the poet’s goodbye to the earth, the low, rich phrases of Constance Volk’s flutes murmured around her like a consoling friend.

But throughout much of the piece the texture of the 16-member ensemble, composed of strings, woodwinds and percussion, sounded raw. The problem may have been Gottlieb Hall, which isn’t particularly resonant. Or perhaps the players needed more time to hone a blended ensemble sound.

But the difficulty may have been in the transcription itself. Though Mahler uses a large orchestra in Das Lied and the music’s Oriental flavor is brightly colored, its overall orchestral texture is seamless and often muted. We sense that the singers are riding vast waves that continually gather strength, crest and ebb. In reducing the musical texture, Schoenberg and Riehn may simply have stripped Das Lied of its mysterious depth. The bare bones were on display in dal niente’s performance, but their lean, pronounced lines weren’t particularly seductive. Too often we heard solo instruments coming and going, seemingly detached from the voices around them.

Michael Sylvester pushed his strong tenor at times, but he brought warmth and good cheer to the poet’s drinking songs. Bentley’s mezzo occasionally turned brittle, but she was expressively involved in the text.

Stravinsky’s Concertino was more successful, alternating between purposeful bustle and languorous, faintly Oriental melodic song.

Dal niente’s season continues May 2 in Evanston with two world premieres and June 5 at Gottlieb with a program that includes music of Pierre Boulez. In July, the ensemble travels to Darmstadt, Germany, to participate in a prestigious international new music festival. Chicago’s music scene is richer for having these hungry young musicians.

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