Performing any of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies is no easy feat, as most musicians know well. While not a symphony in name, his Das Lied von der Erde (German for “Song of the Earth”) is no exception. Most consider the piece to be his ninth symphony, although Mahler himself didn’t want to call it that due to “the curse of the ninth,” otherwise known as the impending death sentence that came with a composer’s ninth symphony.
(The great Beethoven died soon after writing his ninth, which meant no one else could write more than nine or even make plans to start on their ninth symphony, lest they face certain death themselves.) Mahler did eventually write a ninth symphony though — and even began a 10th — before his death in 1911. Sadly, he was never able to hear Das Lied von der Erde or Symphony No. 9 performed live.
Das Lied calls for two singers — a tenor and an alto — who alternate as soloists during six movements. For their performances this week, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra will host mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, who is no stranger to performing Mahler with the DSO. She was the featured vocalist in his Third Symphony back in 2015 with former music director Jaap van Zweden, a performance the DSO recorded and released a year later.
O’Connor tells us she’s looking forward to returning to Dallas and working with the DSO.
“I think they really reacted well to me, and we had great collaboration during Mahler 3,” she says. “I’m really excited to come back and do Das Lied with them.”
Das Lied is quite an undertaking, physically and emotionally, especially for the vocalists.
“This piece really speaks to me because it’s the one Mahler piece where I get to be much more of a storyteller,” O’Connor says. “I love Mahler so much because he is willing to reveal his innermost thoughts and emotions without any holding back. As a singer, it’s so incredible to be able to sing these movements that he has just given everything to.”
Preparing for such a performance takes an incredible amount of time and energy.
“It’s like training for a marathon for me,” O’Connor says. “I really have to kind of train like an athlete and make sure my voice is in shape to make it through all the rehearsals and still be able to do the performances. It takes a lot of stamina and a lot of rest for my voice to be in the right place for it.”
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The last movement alone is 30 minutes. That’s almost as long as the previous five movements combined. And it’s an intense half-hour. Titled “The Farewell,” the text illustrates feelings of loneliness and leaving. (Perhaps leaving this world. Mahler was dealing with severe illness during the time he wrote this piece, and probably contemplating his own mortality.)
“Where do I go? / I go, I wander in the mountains / I seek peace for my lonely heart”
“It forces you [the singer] to experience the whole goodbye,” O’Connor explains. “It feels as though it’s in real time. But it’s actually extremely liberating once you get into it.”
The DSO will perform Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde alongside Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony this Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Donald Runnicles conducts. Tickets start at $29.