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KC STAR CLASSICAL BEAT: KC Symphony to present Mahler’s symphony on the beauty of eternity

Michelle DeYoungMezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung says of Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”: “The thing that’s important to know about Mahler is that he can go into the very depth.” She’ll perform the Mahler work with the Kansas City Symphony. Kristin Hoebermann

Special to The Star

Gustav Mahler considered “Das Lied von der Erde” (Song of the Earth) a symphony, though it was for two voices and orchestra. In fact, Mahler’s great champion, Leonard Bernstein, called the work “Mahler’s greatest symphony.”

The Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern with tenor Joseph Kaiser and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung will perform Mahler’s moving piece Feb. 24-26 at Helzberg Hall. 

Joseph KaiserTenor Joseph Kaiser will perform with the Kansas City Symphony in a presentation of Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” Julie Artacho

To set the stage for “Das Lied,” the concert will open with Franz Schubert’s lyrical Symphony No. 8, known as the “Unfinished Symphony.”

Scholars still aren’t sure why Schubert never finished the work. Some speculate it was because at the time he was writing it, he had his first outbreak of syphilis. Others believe he simply lost interest, turning his attention to other works in progress, like his “Wanderer” fantasy.

Whatever the reason, the symphony in its unfinished state leaves an especially profound, mysterious impression.

“It’s mystical,” Stern says. “Who knows, the final movements might have been happy and carefree and light, but I don’t think so. The fact that he died so young and these two movements are left hanging and they’re so unbelievable beautiful sort of adds an extra dimension of longing and wistful regret.”

Stern adds that the serenity of Schubert’s unfinished symphony is “a perfect foil” for Mahler’s “Das Lied.”

“It really is Mahler’s closing, final statement,” Stern says. “But it’s not about death. Obviously there’s a lot of mortality in it, but it’s serene and peaceful. It’s not about mortality as much as it’s about eternity.”

DeYoung, who has sung the work many times, agrees that even though the work was written near the end of Mahler’s life — a life filled with great tragedy — it is not morbid.

“The thing that’s important to know about Mahler is that he can go into the very depth,” DeYoung says, “but most of the time, even in Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children), he ends with a hopeful, eternal feeling. And that’s very much true in ‘Das Lied von der Erde,’ where you go through all these different experiences, love and longing and loss and yet you end with ewig, ewig. Eternal, eternal. The exhilarating part is equal to the gloomy part.”

The text for “Das Lied” comes from Hans Bethge’s “The Chinese Flute,” a German translation of ancient Chinese poetry. The poems express the classic Eastern sensitivity to ephemeral beauty and the transience of life.

“ ‘Das Lied’ is a meditation on the different stages of life,” Stern explains. “So you’ve got drunken fun and hedonism and then it gets very serene and Zen-like. At the end, we take our humanity from the earth, and the beauties and mysteries of the earth renew themselves every year, and part of that is our passing, and when you pass, the world and nature go on, and our spirit goes on and all that’s left is the eternal.

“It’s a piece that changes you when you listen to it and it’s a piece that changes you when you perform it.”

8 p.m. Feb. 24 & 25 and 2 p.m. Feb. 26. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $23-$78. 816-471-0400 or KCSymphony.org.

Read the full article on the KC Star website.