Because of its depth of emotions and its complex but transparent orchestration, Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde has long been one of my favorite works. It calls for tenor and mezzo-soprano or alto soloists and a large orchestra with many woodwinds tripled and various extras such as mandolin and bells. In recent years I had been shocked to read reviews of new recordings of a chamber-music-sized version. None of the books about Mahler had mentioned such a thing, nor had I read anything about it in histories of the so-called New Viennese School of Music, founded by Arnold Schoenberg. It was therefore with considerable anticipation that on November 18 I attended the second concert of “2000-2001 the Year of Music” series in Meredith’s Jones Auditorium, where the reduced version of the score was given

For the Viennese Society for Private Musical Performances, Schoenberg made numerous transcriptions of large orchestral works for a small chamber orchestra. The fine Meredith concert program notes, adapted from the writings of Diederick Verstraete and Renaud Marchart, traced the origins of this transcription of Das Lied. Schoenberg began it in 1921 for his Society but its financial failure forced him to leave it unfinished. The program notes reveal that “The current version, published in 1983 by Universal, is mainly due to Reiner Riehn, who scrupulously respected the indications Schoenberg had annotated in the original score for large orchestra.” Apparently it was Schoenberg’s method to mark the full score and delegate the rest to his students.

For the Meredith performance, the tenor soloist was Timothy W. Sparks and the mezzo-soprano soloist was Ellen Williams. The singers were not helped by being placed in the pit with the orchestra. Without a stage to help project their voices, they too often had to compete with the musicians on an equal footing. Of the two, Sparks made the best impression. He faced the hall directly and sang with a light but lovely tone and excellent diction. Too often Williams faced the audience at a diagonal, which didn’t help her projection. Her voice sounded fine but, with her tendency to smooth consonants and her less direct projection, her rendering of the text was less clear.

The stage was taken up by a series of choreographed solo dancers or ensembles. Dance is by not my forte, so I tried to concentrate on the chamber orchestra and singers. When I bothered to look onstage, the choreography seemed not to run counter to the music most of the time. The less said about the dull costumes the better. A series of Chinese scroll paintings projected on both the left and right walls made a more positive impression.

Conductor Jack Roller did a splendid job holding the piece together, and most of the balance problems were due to the singers being stuck in the pit. The dozen orchestral musicians were excellent. The NC Symphony’s Kimberly Van Pelt was astoundingly successful; the horn figures prominently in all six movements. Bo Newsome played at his usual high standards on both the oboe and English horn. The able first violinist was Cheryl Benedict and the second violinist was Li-Yuan Ho. Virginia Hudson was the cellist, Erik Dyke was the double bassist, and Jeff Moyer was the violist. Pam Nelson played both flute and piccolo while Shirley Violand-Jones played various clarinets. The bassoonist was Victor Benedict, Donna Jolly played an upright piano, and the percussion was in the able hands of Cameron Britt and John Fedderson. I have named all the players because of the extraordinarily high standard of their performance.