Ironically, the best entryway into the great, giant symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) is not any one of his nine completed symphonies, but a song cycle for alto, tenor, and orchestra, Das Lied von der Erde ("Song of the Earth"). Mahler anchors the music in the text, which makes Das Lied a good place to start.
One of the few truly successful conductor-composers, Mahler wrote music with a conductor's ear for timbral traffic control; strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion hammer, glitter, and sing together with a clarity that surpasses his predecessors.
In one of my favorite passages, Das Lied's second movement, Mahler embeds the lyric "Long do I weep in my loneliness" in morose, pacing violin scales, a repeated horn call, and sighing oboe that shadows the singer. Mahler all but caresses the next line, "The autumn in my heart endures too long" with swelling brass and strings that gradually crumble into the unsettling fragments of the coda.
For both composer and listener, Das Lied is a translation of a translation. Mahler used texts of T'ang Dynasty (618–907 AD) Chinese poetry by Li Po, Wang Wei, and others from an edition by German poet Hans Bethge. Ignorant of Chinese, Bethge collated, compiled, and rewrote those poems from English, French, and German translations. For non-German-speaking listeners like me who follow the German texts in concert, Das Lied becomes a sumptuous poem instantly echoed and magnified by a singing voice and resounding orchestra.
Two shorter items round out the program: Sarasate's lollipop "Carmen Fantasy" with violinist Hahn-Bin and extracts from Respighi's ballet Belkis, Queen of Sheba, which slathers a phony yet alluring Technicolor patina over traditional Middle Eastern and North African music.
Catch the Northwest Mahler Festival on Tues July 18 at Meany Hall, UW Campus, 800-838-3006, 8 pm, $15/$18.