June 30th Friday | Sinonietta Cracovia with Ulrike Helzel at Sukiennice | Kraków, Poland

The moment I stepped into the midsummer evening of Kraków’s Rynek Głowny (Main Square) from inside the concert hall, beholding the façade of Mariacki (St. Mary’s Basilica) glimmering tenderly in the looming dusk, I was filled with joy. What a breathtaking intermission view it is!

Music is in the air, music is everywhere. A few days after I moved to Kraków, I finally got back to my concert-going routine. It was an incredible experience, more stunning than wandering around in the old town every night, marveling at the colorful old buildings as if being in a fairy tale. I’m so glad to be back in Europe, in Poland, in Kraków.

The concert took place inside the magnificent Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) at the center of the Rynek. I have never been upstairs before, and the concert is precisely in the art gallery, and I was surrounded by 19th-century Polish paintings. The last time I had a similar “wow” experience at a concert venue even started was a few years back in Bologna, when I went to a piano recital inside a church. This time I was marveled again by the sheer level of “romanticism” running in the blood veins of these Europeans. How did they do it? Arranging a concert in a museum gallery? I don’t care about the acoustics per se, the idea itself is simply astounding and beyond romantic!

The program also, at least for me, was to dream for: Mahler, Mahler, Mahler. Of course, there are other composers in the mix as well, but for a Mahler fanatic like myself, how could I possibly miss such a Mahler-loaded program? The title of the concert (yes, it does have a title) is “Miłość, śmierć i dziewczyna” (“love, death and the maiden”)—inspired clearly by Schubert’s string quartet “Der Tod und das Mädchen” but not only. The program began with Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s “Modlitwa dziewicy” (“Maiden’s Prayer”), a famous piano piece I used to play when I was a little girl. When I heard it in the art gallery, performed by a string orchestra, all the childhood memories sitting in front of the piano playing this piece, dreaming about what my life would be like when I become a young lady myself. Who would have thought that fifteen years later I would be listening to a string arrangement of this music in Kraków? Life never fails to surprise you!

When I was still reminiscing about my own childhood, the program moved on to Alma Mahler’s songs. This is where I would say my personal and academic interests overlap. I have read so much about Alma Mahler for my research, and personally I am also curious about this woman’s incredible life. I know she sacrificed her own musical career upon the “request” of Gustav Mahler, which caused an irreparable damage to their marriage. Listening to Alma’s songs for the first time, I could not concentrate on the music or the text but rather on the side story of her life. What could she have become had she been given the chance to work as a professional musician? I know Gustav published Alma’s songs hoping that his action would save their marriage. They did not end up divorcing, but shortly after Alma’s songs came out in print, Gustav passed away. Her songs did not become popular either, and she knew better than restarting her own musical career. It was too late. Instead, Alma has been the most forceful champion for her first husband’s work after his death, and through that she has become part of the “Mahler legend” herself. Without her support, perhaps Gustav Mahler’s music would not be populating all the concert halls in the world today.

Alma’s songs were followed by the “Adagietto”—a choice that could not have been more fitting! Even without trying to read the Polish program booklet, I knew that Mahler’s most famous orchestral piece contained a love message for Alma, as told by Willem Mengelberg. But it was nice to see the Polish translation of that message, especially for a comparatist:

“Jakże Cię kocham, moje słońce

nie jestem w stanie wysłowić

Lamentowć mogę tyko mą tęsknotę

moją miłość, moje szczęście.”

“Wie ich Dich liebe, Du meine Sonne,

ich kann mit Worten Dir’s nicht sagen.

Nur meine Sehnsucht kann ich Dir klagen

und meine Liebe, meine Wonne!”

As an encore for the first half, the orchestra played the Adagietto again, while the mezzo-soprano Ulrike Henzel sang those words out in German. Isn’t it perfect? Following Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder in the program, these very words from Mahler’s love letter sounded just like those from “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” Now with the string orchestra, the resemblance between this Rückert-Lied and the Adagietto is even more apparent, because the latter was scored with the lightest of strings. The last two verses from Mahler’s song “Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel, / In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied” echo those of his own for Alma. Perhaps the Adagietto is more than a love letter for the young lady he was pursuing, it was a lament from the lonely one in the world. Both Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and his Rückert-Lieder were composed in 1901 and 1902, so it wouldn’t be a total coincidence that Mahler’s own creative thoughts were interwoven in these two works. Perhaps what Gustav really wanted to tell Alma was not his longing or his joy, but instead his loneliness hidden inside the Rückert song that carried uncanny resemblance to his love letter—the Adagietto.

The string orchestra performed the Adagietto in an unrelenting slow tempo this time, just as I was putting together Alma and the music I was listening to. It’s not the best version I have heard, but right here right now it was perfect. I was dying for that descending seventh—the “Blick motif” borrowed from Wagner’s Tristan. When my ears finally caught them, I was telling myself that Alma for sure would understand what this entailed, and she did. What a magical moment it must have been!

After a well-deserved intermission, wandering around the Rynek at the impending nightfall in the midst of the hustle and bustle, I made my way upstairs again inside the gallery, as if stepping into a different epoch, a different life.

In the second half the orchestra performed Schubert’s “Der Tod und das Mädchen” with a score arranged by a composer no other than Mahler himself who adapted the piece for string orchestra (unfinished, though). The last time I heard this piece live on stage was over three years ago on a late winter afternoon in Hertz Hall, also in the second half, but Schubert’s piece followed the string quartet of Mahler’s Viennese protégé—Arnold Schoenberg. Good memories indeed! Mahler’s arrangement of Schubert enhanced the drama of Schubert’s otherwise feeble theatricality. The second movement sounded a lot like the recurring ostinato theme in the second movement of Beethoven 7. Was the connection accidental? I don’t know. But for me, it was mimicking the footsteps of death, fate, God, whatever it may be. And at that exact moment, how could I now think of Mahler 8, the opening “Waldung, sie schwankt heran” from the second part?

As an encore, the orchestra played Bądarzewska’s “Modlitwa dziewicy” again, but this time the the theme was repeated, musicians left the stage one by one. How cute was that?

In the over-saturation of Austrian-ness, it dawned on me that I was back in Europe—Central Europe to be exact. I couldn’t imagine hearing a culturally and musically specific program like this anywhere else, and I love it. It felt so good to be back—didn’t I mention that already?  This is only my first concert in Kraków, and my first concert back in Europe after a long hiatus. As it turned out, I didn’t miss Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder this season after all. Yes, my love for Mahler sees no ends, and I was joyful as I walked into the night of the busy market square, just like a little girl—and all I could think about was getting an ice cream for myself on my way back home.

Concert Program

Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska, “Maiden’s Prayer”

Alma Mahler, “In meines Vaters Garten,” “Laue Somernacht,” “Bei Dir ist es Traut”

Gustav Mahler, Adagietto from Fifth Symphony

Gustav Mahler, Rückert-Lieder


Drinor Zymberi, Sinfonietta: Moving Landscapes

Franz Schubert, “Death and the Maiden” arr. Gustav Mahler


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