AMITIAE - Thursday 18 September 2014

Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth): Thailand Cultural Centre, Wednesday 10 September 2014 -
Somtow Sucharitkul, Siam Philharmonic Orchestra, with Soloists Grace Eschauri and Javier Agulló

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers

Das Lied von Erde

Around 15 years ago, Somtow Sucharitkul made a promise to the Princess Galyani Vadhana that he would endeavour to conduct all Mahler symphonies in Bangkok. He now has only Mahler's Symphony Number 2 left to perform. The last work put on at the Thailand Cultural Center was the Symphony of a Thousand: the 8th Symphony.

That was in July 2013, with choirs and musicians from several countries taking part. The 2nd Symphony - The Resurrection - also requires a large contingent of performers. Although it was planned for this year, many potential participants declined because of political instability. Instead, Somtow decided to put on Das Lied von Erde: Song of the Earth.

This was composed by Gustav Mahler in the early years of the 20th Century. Although Beethoven had produced his 9th Symphony using Schiller's Ode to Joy, the use of a song cycle pushed back boundaries and was followed by other 20th century composers. Although regarded as a symphonic work and following his 8th Symphony (1906), it was not numbered. The 9th Symphony, followed Das Lied von Erde.

The original source for the words was a series of Chinese poems and other works, put into German by Hans Bethge, with some words added by Mahler. He composed the work in 1908 and 1909 aware he was suffering from a heart condition and not long after the death of his daughter, so he would have been acutely aware of his own mortality.

Das Lied von Erde
Image Used by Kind Permission of Somtow Sucharitkul and Opera Siam

There are six songs for two singers who alternate. Mahler specified a tenor and alto (or baritone). In this performance, however, Somtow used a mezzo soprano. This has been done by other conductors, including Daniel Barenboim. The mezzo soprano at the performance this week was Grace Eschauri a regular performer at Opera Siam who was one of the soloists at that superb Mahler 8. The solo tenor, was Javier Agulló who has previously appeared in Tosca here, as well as in Otello and Massenet's Thaïs.

The six songs of Das Lied von Erde are:

  • Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow
  • The Lonely One in Autumn
  • Of Youth
  • Of Beauty
  • The Drunken Man in Spring
  • The Farewell

Das Lied von Erde Somtow and the Siam Philharmonic Orchestra have a solid following here and a good part of the work is funded through donations, with much of this via awareness on social media. Somtow wrote "No tickets were sold and all contributions were voluntary, allowing students and those who wouldn't normally be able to pay for symphony concerts (and freeloaders) to be subsidized by the generosity of others." With Das Lied von der Erde the total contributions exceeded 50% of the budget of the concert.

I was surprised to see him before the concert rushing about answering queries about tickets. It may be that he needs this micro-managing approach to channel some of the frustrations into creative energy.

As it was mid-week, I was surprised by size of the audience. With a no-cameras rule, I kept the DSLR in my bag, but noticed several smartphone screens during the performance. It was better than in the past, and mercifully there were no phone calls; indeed at times, the audience was completely silent while the music was being played.

The musicians began by playing the unusually beautiful arrangement of the King's song, Sanrasoen Phra Barami, that I had heard at previous concerts. Somtow then explained to the audience the way the Mahler cycle came about. His semi-casual chats with the audience always go down well, particularly as he delivers the goods.

The arrival of the two soloists signalled the start of the performance and the audience settled down. Although much publicity for the event had referred to this as "The Song of the Earth", I was relieved that the soloists sung in the original German.

Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow) was sung by Javier Agulló who began after a few strong bars from the orchestra. Initially, his voice sounded slightly faint against the music, but the acoustics may not be the best at this venue and my seat (off to the right) may have lost some of the voice output. Nonetheless, the balance between orchestra and soloist improved as the song progressed and Mr Agulló's voice came through beautifully.

With Von der Jugend (Of Youth) his voice flowed during this third song. In Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunken Man in Spring) the orchestra began quite strongly and Mr Agulló responded with a forceful rendition, particularly as he neared the climax of the song where his power filled the auditorium.

This is such a good orchestra and - especially with that fifth song - it felt that these mainly young performers were happy with what they were able to do this evening. I was particularly impressed with the Woodwind section, especially clarinet and oboe: these musicians were accurate and mellifluous.

With Mahler, the horns are important and I detected a couple of oddities here. While most of the output was immensely powerful, occasionally there were hints of a weakness in the quieter sections. At other times, the horns demonstrated the full confidence one expects. The Siam Philharmonic strings section rarely disappoints and tonight was no exception, with particular note going to the double basses off to the right.

Das Lied von Erde
Image Used by Kind Permission of Somtow Sucharitkul and Opera Siam

Grace Eschauri has never disappointed and with Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn) her clear and honey tones did much to make listening a pleasure. With Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) again her tones were able to convey the ideas of love and sentiment. During the final song, Der Abschied (The Farewell), the singer alternates with the orchestra, so at times during this lengthy section, Miss Eschauri was silent, but was closely following the score, as was the seated Javier Agulló.

There was a beautiful melodic opening from the orchestra and then, as Miss Eschauri began, she treated this part with a gentle, yet respectful approach, building as the piece progressed. As befits the original source for the texts, the woodwind section hinted at mystery and the Orient. The clarinet featured here and at other times with a delicate precision, along with the flute.

Quieter passages showed the strength of the ensemble, who appeared to have the audience spellbound in certain passages, until the final two words, "Ewig . . . ewig" (farewell, farewell) and the performance ended, to much justified applause.

After the usual bows and respect paid to the orchestra by Somtow, former politician Arthit Ourairat was asked to present flowers to performers.

Das Lied von Erde
Image Used by Kind Permission of Somtow Sucharitkul and Opera Siam

It has been clear for a few years that Bangkok has a world-class orchestra in the Siam Philharmonic. The Mahler cycle in memory of the Princess Galyani Vadhana is a first class endeavour. Not only is it producing young Thai musicians who are performing abroad, but those who visit Bangkok and have a chance to see the performances are commenting on them with superlative descriptions.

Under the guidance of Somtow Sucharitkul, the Siam Philharmonic and Opera Siam have other works planned. I have heard talk about the Britten Requiem Mass and other major works. Some of the Mahler performances are available via iTunes, although the Mahler 8 is only being sold as a DVD (video) thus far.

The performance of the less well-known Das Lied von der Erde was a well-executed musical production that delighted the large audience. Bangkok music-lovers are lucky to have such talents fairly easily accessible.

See also:

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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All content copyright © G. K. Rogers 2014