CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – In 1907, the great Austrian composer Gustav Mahler had a bad year. First, he lost his job as director of the Vienna State Opera. Then, in July, his young daughter Maria died after a brief illness. While grieving this loss, Mahler was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition.
In the months that followed, the composer found solace in a book of Chinese Tang Dynasty poetry titled “The Chinese Flute.” As he read the works, translated into German, a composition slowly took shape in his head.
“In it, Mahler found a way to express a number of things very personal to him,” Dr. Gregory Wolynec, Austin Peay State University professor of music, said. “He was re-examining his entire life. He decided to set those poems into a total of six separate pieces combined together as ‘The Song of the Earth.’ It’s as personal a statement of music as has ever been written by anybody.”
Next month, Clarksville’s Gateway Chamber Orchestra will present this powerful work to the middle Tennessee community with two special concerts. The first performance of “The Song of the Earth” will be at 3 p.m., May 5, in the APSU Mabry Concert Hall. The orchestra will then travel to Nashville for a 7:30 p.m. concert on May 6 at the Second Presbyterian Church of Green Hills.
The concert marks the first time the orchestra has performed Mahler. The composer, born Jewish, died in 1911 and his works were later banned in Germany by the Nazis. Recordings of his compositions didn’t appear in American until the 1960s and 1970s, but today, performances of his music draw the type of large crowds once reserved for works by Beethoven and Mozart.
“Mahler’s works are massive and very difficult and incredibly popular with audiences, and incredibly popular with musicians,” Wolynec said.
Mahler’s “Song of the Earth” is a powerful and sometimes haunting work with joyous moments followed by songs of introspection. It is ultimately the work of a man struggling with loss and his own mortality.
“When people talk about the transformative power of music or art, I would say that this piece would be a great example of that,” Wolynec said. “He writes a piece that is very emotional, but the end is not tragic. It’s almost an acceptance. It’s peaceful.”
The internationally acclaimed singers Teresa Buchholz, mezzo-soprano, and Jason Slayden, tenor, will also join the orchestra for solo performances during “Song of the Earth.”
“We’re delighted to have two artists of this caliber as featured soloists,” Wolynec said.
The orchestra has earned an international reputation over the years for its performances of such masterworks, along with its reviving of lost or underappreciated compositions by the world’s great classical composers. Most recently, the Gateway Chamber Orchestra, made up of APSU music faculty and other professional musicians, received praise for its second album, “Chamber Symphonies,” featuring works by Romanian composer George Enescu and Austrian composers Franz Schreker and Arnold Schoenberg.
“Wolynec’s Gateway Chamber Orchestra continues to impress me immensely with this release,” music critic Jerry Dubins wrote in Fanfare magazine. “The players may be university faculty members augmented by practicing musicians from the outside community, but in every way these are topnotch, professional performances that match or outclass the competition.”
The American Record Guide called the disc “bold, powerful, American.” In February, the album’s producer, Blanton Alspaugh, took home a Grammy Award for Producer of the Year, Classical, for his work on the “Chamber Symphonies” disc.
The orchestra will tackle the daunting, hourlong Mahler work, but the evening will open with a brief performance by the newly formed Gateway Chamber Chorus. This group, headed by APSU music department chair Dr. Doug Rose, will present a collection of choral works that help introduce the Mahler piece. The chorus will perform a piece by Chinese-American composer Chen Yi, along with works by Austrian composer Franz Schubert, Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky and Dr. George Mabry, APSU emeritus professor and former director of the Nashville Symphony Choir.
“The “Song of the Earth” concert will conclude the orchestra’s 2012-13 season. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and active duty military, and $40 for a family of four. Tickets are available on the orchestra’s website, gatewaychamberorchestra.com.