The Chamber Music Society of Sacramento will present a special concert in the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall on Friday, April 25, at 7:30 p.m., featuring the Schoenberg/Riehn arrangement of Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”) plus the original chamber music version of Aaron Copland’s ballet score “Appalachian Spring.”
The program also will include historic video of the late American conductor Leonard Bernstein commenting on “The Song of the Earth,” which Bernstein regarded as Mahler’s greatest piece.
William Barbini, music director of the Chamber Music Society, played under Bernstein in the 1970s and early ’80s. Barbini graduated from Juilliard in 1970, and joined the violin section of the New York Philharmonic a short time later. Bernstein had stepped down as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, but he continued to be closely associated with the orchestra.
“As conductor laureate, Bernstein conducted six or seven weeks out of the season,” Barbini recalled. “And Bernstein basically did almost all of the tours — about four weeks annually.”
Like many musicians who played under Bernstein, Barbini speaks reverently when the master’s name comes up: “He was the greatest,” Barbini said.
Barbini first met Bernstein when Barbini was a boy, and Bernstein would occasionally materialize at master classes and student recitals where the young Barbini would perform.
“I remember being nervous about standing up and playing for Bernstein when I was 10 or 11,” Barbini said.
Through Bernstein, Barbini also met Copland.
“Copland came to the New York Philharmonic many times; he was a close friend of Bernstein, so when we played Copland’s pieces, he showed up,” Barbini recalled.
Copland wrote “Appalachian Spring” for the Martha Graham Ballet in 1944. The music was scored for 13 instruments — a double string quartet, bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and piano. That’s the version that the Chamber Music Society will perform at Mondavi. (Copland later rearranged the ballet score as an orchestral suite, and the larger version is heard more often nowadays.)
Mahler’s “Song of the Earth,” by contrast, started out as a big piece for orchestra and two vocal soloists, composed in 1908-09 — a year after Mahler’s daughter Maria died (just short of her 5th birthday), Mahler was diagnosed with a heart ailment, and he was forced to resign an important conducting post. The music in “Song of the Earth” reflects those tragedies through themes of parting and salvation, as well as Mahler’s sense of mortality. He died in 1911.
Schoenberg began scoring a chamber orchestration of “Song of the Earth” in the 1920s. He finished almost all of the adaptation, but left the last portion incomplete. After Schoenberg’s death in 1951, his chamber arrangement eventually was completed by Rainer Riehn in 1980.
“There’s something clearer about the smaller version of both pieces,” Barbini observed. As a musician who’s spent much of his career playing in large ensembles, “I wish I could say there’s a more luscious sound with the full orchestra version, but there isn’t,” he added.
Barbini left the New York Philharmonic in 1983 to become concertmaster with the Sacramento Symphony, he has long made his home in El Macero. He has been music director of the Chamber Music Society of Sacramento since 1987; nowadays he is also on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory, in addition to teaching privately and performing with chamber music ensembles and orchestras around the state.
The Chamber Music Society’s April 25 performance will feature conductor Dawn Harms, music director of the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony, and also one of the top violinists in the San Francisco-based New Century Chamber Orchestra; soprano Carrie Hennessey, who has appeared in several Sacramento Opera productions; and tenor Christopher Bengochea, who has appeared with Opera San Jose and other companies.
The concert will be presented during Earth Week — April 25 is also Arbor Day — fitting in with the Chamber Music Society’s seasonlong theme of “Song of the Earth,” with music by various composers on the theme on each of the season’s programs. The concert is co-sponsored by the UC Davis department of Earth and planetary sciences.
Tickets are $30 general, $15 for students, available through the Mondavi Center box office, at www.mondaviarts.org or by calling 530-754-2787. Tickets for the originally scheduled April program by the Chamber Music Society — which was to have been held at Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis, and at the Music Recital Hall at Sacramento State — will be honored.