Co-commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest with the support of the CMNW Commissioning Fund, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, La Jolla Music Society for Summerfest, and Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival.
To stage A Song by Mahler in Doug Fitch's premiere production, please contact Derek Zasky at William Morris Endeavor.
A celebrated concert singer, famous for a particular Mahler love song, develops early onset Alzheimer's. The drama follows her and her husband, who is also her pianist, as they confront their new reality. The tragic end result resolves in a new, elevated understanding of their love.
A Song by Mahler is the third piece I have written in a genre, which I see as a combination of theater and music. I have tried to combine these two forms in a way that addresses some of the problems I find in opera. Particularly, the fact that singing any set of words takes approximately three times as long as speaking them. This leads to a sense of time, which is not how we experience “real time.” Another aspect, which I have always found problematic is the setting of purely mundane, everyday words into singing.
In these works, I have written text, to be performed as in a play, while composing music, which, as in an opera, conveys underlying and essential emotional context. In the previous two pieces there was no singing at all. In this one I employ both speech and singing. The speech is rhythmically controlled in order to synchronize with the music. But it is essentially “acted” as in a play. The singing takes over when an emotional threshold is reached where speaking doesn’t suffice.
The play itself, considers the situation of a concertizing singer, who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. She confronts the reality of this, along with her husband, who is also her accompanist. The play is not an attempt at documenting the myriad aspects of the disease. It is, rather, an attempt to address the specific emotional evolution of this couple, their love, and their particular relationship to music.
I have used one Mahler song, “Liebst Du Um Schoenheit,” as a vehicle for the story. It is the song she always sang as her last encore in concerts. I place a “Masterclass” early in the piece in order to explain the deep meaning of the song, for her, personally, and in order for our audience to understand it. Her gradual deterioration, and his attempts to adjust, while trying to keep her connected through music, lead to an eventual resolution, and an evolved sense of their love.
— Marc Neikrug
A love song by Gustav Mahler is at the center of composer and Festival Artistic Director Marc Neikrug’s new stage work, A Song by Mahler. “Liebst du um Schönheit” (“If You Love for the Sake of Beauty”), from Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, is “a key element to the drama,” Mr. Neikrug says, and, as it “embodies the message of love as an aspiration, a self-embodied posture, and a state of being,” speaks to the emotional core of the work as well.
A Song by Mahler centers on the changing realities of two characters: “a concertizing singer who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s” and her husband, “who is also her accompanist,” Mr. Neikrug writes in a program note. The work — which features the talents of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, baritone Kelly Markgraf, clarinetist David Shifrin, and the FLUX Quartet — “is not an attempt at documenting the myriad aspects of the disease,” he says. Instead, it’s “an attempt to address the specific emotional evolution of this couple, touching on their love and their particular relationship to music.”
“Liebst du um Schönheit,” which Mahler wrote for his future wife, Alma Schindler, is a song the singer in this work is especially known for — it’s the last, signature encore she performs at the end of her concerts — and to give audiences some insight into the song itself and into what it means to the singer personally, Mr. Neikrug has her teach it in a master class early in the story.
This idea of a last encore is one of the “several elements that converged” in Mr. Neikrug’s thinking and “provided the initial creative impulse for this work,” he says. In addition to being a composer, Mr. Neikrug is a renowned pianist who famously toured the world as the recital partner of violinist Pinchas Zukerman. One source of inspiration, he says, “was the simple fact that, for 35 years, Pinchas and I finished our recitals with a last encore, which became associated with our concert experience.” Another personal inspiration, he says, was that he had “a good friend who had once been a singer and became a victim of Alzheimer’s.”
A Song by Mahler is the third work Mr. Neikrug has written in a genre he describes as “a combination of theater and music.” The text in this work has both spoken and sung sections, and “the singing,” Mr. Neikrug says, “is felt as a heightened emotional level, beyond which speaking would suffice.” While composing, he adds, “I saw a way of furthering my exploration of music and theater with how the piece could be constructed.”
Joining Mr. Neikrug in that exploration is longtime friend and collaborator Doug Fitch, who designed and directs the production. “In writing the text for A Song by Mahler,” Mr. Neikrug says, “I always considered the music that would come as well as the staging. I wanted a simple, self-contained production that could be sent to places in a box, so for that reason, I thought of Doug from the beginning. Doug,” he adds, “is an amazingly visionary, multitalented artist. I knew he would understand the dramatic thrust of the piece and could create the set in a way that would exceed my wishes and add a complementary, expanded, visual element.”
Mr. Fitch, who collaborates on A Song by Mahler with lighting designer Nicholas Houfek, is known for his acclaimed and innovative productions of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre and Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen for the New York Philharmonic, Puccini’s Turandot for The Santa Fe Opera, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel for LA Opera, HK Gruber’s Gloria — A Pig Tale for The Metropolitan Museum of Art in collaboration with the New York Philharmonic and The Juilliard School, and Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat for the Festival. “The thing about A Song by Mahler,” Mr. Fitch says, “is that there’s nothing else like it. I love how musically and dramatically efficient this opera is and how it reinvents the form while being completely adherent to the storytelling.”
Storytelling is a major element in A Song by Mahler, as Mr. Neikrug is drawn to certain kinds of narratives. “I’m interested in stories that have a point of view, a message that I find important,” he says. His hope with this work is that its story and the ways in which it’s conveyed have an impact on concertgoers. “I find the combination of concert music, for want of a better term, and theater to be extremely powerful,” Mr. Neikrug says. “When tied to a subject as profound as love and loss, I would hope that an audience would experience an intellectually and emotionally provoking evening, which would lead to a longer-lasting contemplation.”
— Amy Hegarty, courtesy of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival