BY DAVE ALLEN In classical music, it’s common to observe the anniversaries of long-ago births of the all-time greats with year-round performances of their works. They seem to crop up all the time; last year marked the bicentennials of two Romantic heavyweights, Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann. These observances can lead to some transcendent moments: I remember hearing a broadcast of bells ringing in Salzburg, Austria, in honor of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in early 2006, and then performing his Requiem, left unfinished at his death, later that year. The death of a composer, though, seems like a subject less worth celebrating: too much of a reminder of classical music’s longtime reliance on the hidebound traditions and the cult of the dead-white-guy. How, then, to handle the anniversaries that 2011 offers up: 100 years since the death of Gustav Mahler [pictured, above], creator of massive, all-embracing symphonies and song cycles, and 60 years since the death of Arnold Schoenberg [pictured, below], paragon of atonal music? They’re divisive figures, no doubt: the blend of foreboding and mania in Mahler’s nine symphonies has turned off some aficionados for generations, and for much of the 20th century, there was no easier or faster way to clear an auditorium than to program Schoenberg.
Rather than getting stuck in the fin-de-siecle era of Vienna that gave rise to both composers, an anniversary celebration by Philadelphia’s Dolce Suono Ensemble is focusing on their impact on the realm of modern music and living composers. The chamber music group’s “Mahler 100/Schoenberg 60” project has brought on six composers for world premieres that reflect the lasting influence of these two titanic late Romantics in a startling range of styles. Songs by Steven Stuckey, Steven Mackey and Fang Man take on Mahler the man — the literature he read and loved, the Asian music and poetry that influenced his “Das Lied von der Erde,” the demanding letters he wrote to his concert manager regarding rehearsals of his music — using German, Chinese and English texts, while Philadelphia composer and Curtis professor David Ludwig reflects on Schoenberg’s compositional methods with the knowledge that comes from studying with one of Schoenberg’s pupils and visiting the master’s house in Austria. Opera singer and Philadelphia native Eric Owens tackles these four premieres, along with Schoenberg’s arrangement of Mahler’s famed song cycle “Songs of a Wayfarer.” Two gnarly instrumental works, Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces and another world premiere, Stratis Minakakis’ “Nepenthe,” round out the concert. It’s a program that Dolce Suono founder and executive director Mimi Stillman has arranged to be both personal and historical, informed by the past but not bound by it. Both Mahler and Schoenberg lived in the U.S. near the end of their lives; Schoenberg died here, and Mahler might have, too, if not for a transatlantic ship voyage. I don’t know what Vienna has laid on for this anniversary year, but it’s fitting to celebrate these two masters on American soil, where their names and their music no longer send audiences away in droves. We’ve come a long way, baby.
Dolce Suono performs Wednesday at 7:30 at the Trinity Center for Urban Life. The program will be reprised at the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn on April 15. Tickets are $20, $10 for students. Available online at www.dolcesuono.com, by phone at 267-252-1803, and at the door.