Return of the Masters: A Musical Perspective

Guest Writer: Rick Reeves, orchestra manager

Houston Ballet Orchestra looks forward to performances of Mahler’s expansive Das Lied von der Erde, or Song of the Earth in the Return of the Masters program (Sept. 8-18). It is rare that any ballet company has the opportunity to present a musical work of this magnitude. It is written for a large orchestra which uses additional woodwinds, a second harp, a mandolin and special guest artists mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer and tenor Russell Thomas.

While the orchestral forces are large, there are only a few occasions when the entire group is playing at the same time. Mahler’s choice of instrumentation (the compliment of musicians) make the orchestra sound like a small chamber group or a large symphony orchestra. But the orchestral writing is not just about supporting the text of the song. Das Lied is a combination of musical forms. It’s part song cycle and part symphony. The symphonic moments act as interludes to tie the six songs together. Mahler made use of singers in several of his symphonies. Das Lied might represent the continued evolution in his compositional style;  a musical culmination of his symphonies and his songs.

Ermanno Florio conducting (photo by-Geoff Winningham)
Music Director Ermanno Florio conducting the Houston Ballet Orchestra photo:Geoff Winningham

Mahler, like several other composers of his day, was concerned about writing a ninth symphony. At that time it seemed that whenever a notable composer wrote his ninth symphony he died. Mahler started his tenth symphony before he finished the ninth symphony. I believe he died shortly after completing the ninth symphony and Das Lied. The first performances were given posthumously. The tenth symphony was not completed.

Susanne Mentzer is a Houston favorite having appeared with Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Symphony Orchestra, as well as most all of the other major opera venues in the world. She is a gifted musician known for her expressive singing. This will be our first opportunity to work with her. Joining Susanne is Russell Thomas. Russell has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and with the Boston Symphony as well as many other organizations. We look forward to hearing this powerful tenor with the orchestra.

On the same program is In the Night which will feature our solo pianist Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon, playing Nocturnes by Chopin. She has an in-depth knowledge of the choreography and knows how it relates to the music. Notice the video monitor on her piano. She watches the dancers as she plays so that her musical accompaniment is perfectly matched to the choreography.

Check out this video for more insight on Song of the Earth from Music Director Ermanno Florio.

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