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Mahler celebration leads up to University of Victoria concert

What: A Week with Mahler When: Jan. 6 to 11 Where: University of Victoria, various locations Tickets: $17.50 regular, $13.50 students/seniors/alumni for the faculty series performance of Das Lied von der Erde Jan. 11. Available at
Oboist Alexandra Pohran Dawkins and tenor Benjamin Butterfield.

What: A Week with Mahler

When: Jan. 6 to 11

Where: University of Victoria, various locations

Tickets: $17.50 regular, $13.50 students/seniors/alumni for the faculty series performance of Das Lied von der Erde Jan. 11. Available at Other events free (see for listings).

One doesn’t simply say, “Hey, let’s play Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde,” on a whim. The large work not only requires a certain number of trained musicians, but a level of commitment to learning the complex rhythms, especially when performed in a chamber arrangement without a conductor.

“A lot of people consider this to be Mahler’s greatest work,” said oboist Alexandra Pohran Dawkins, who has organized a University of Victoria faculty performance of the work alongside tenor Benjamin Butterfield, on Jan. 11.

“It’s a bit of a coup to be able to pull this off.”

Pohran Dawkins has led the organization of a week-long festival dedicated to the Austrian composer, in advance of the concert. Beginning Monday, the public is welcome to sit in on special lectures and rehearsals, as well as “listening rooms” with historical recordings (including two from the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall and one talk by Leonard Bernstein, who was at the forefront of a resurgence of popular interest in Mahler in the 1970s).

But the pinnacle of the week will be Das Lied von der Erde, a piece that Mahler didn’t live to hear performed. Fourteen musicians are onboard to perform the Schoenberg/Riehn chamber arrangement of the piece, including full-time faculty as well guests including baritone Nathaniel Watson, who is travelling from Montreal for the show.

Mahler wrote the piece in 1908, a year after undergoing a series of hardships: His daughter died of scarlet fever, he was diagnosed with a heart condition and he lost his directorship of the Vienna Court Opera.

“It is a really profound piece of music, very inward looking, without the exuberance of some of his earlier work,” Pohran Dawkins said. “As for why we’re doing this at this time, it’s basically because we can.”

It will be the first time time Pohran Dawkins performs the piece publicly. In a “previous life” as a musician with the National Ballet of Canada, she looked over her conductor’s shoulder and saw the sheet music for the piece. A choreographer had created a new work around the piece, she was told. So excited at the prospect, she altered her plans in hopes of performing it. “Even though I was thinking of leaving the ballet, I stuck around a few more years in order to play this piece,” she said. “But we never did.”

Butterfield, on the other hand, sang the piece at Yellow Barn, a chamber musical festival in Vermont. He described the experience as “magic.”

“You suddenly realize the importance of knowing a piece to such an extent,” he said. “Especially in the chamber version, you get to know every little whisper that occurs.”

Butterfield pushed for this performance to be conductor-less, as well. He was largely successful — only the final movement will be performed with guidance from Ajtony Csaba. It requires a certain selflessness from the musicians to listen to one another and perform with loyalty to the piece as a whole, he said. “You have to want to transcend the piece beyond yourself to such a degree that the work is the issue, and not fuss too much about getting what you want to get across,” he said. “The work itself seems to take hold and people respond to it. That’s what I noticed with our colleagues,” he said. “It’s extraordinary, frankly.”

Pohran Dawkins agreed: “There’s real power in that. And real power in the way you relate to your colleagues on stage.”

It won’t be the first time the piece is performed in Victoria. Most recently, Richard Margison and Susan Platts sang the orchestral version with the Victoria Symphony in November 2011.

But it’s a rare concert for a university to host, made possible thanks to the size of UVic’s performance faculty — the largest in the country — and its emphasis on chamber music, Pohran Dawkins said.

“There aren’t many schools that could pull this off,” she said. “I won’t say it exactly fell into place, but the timing was right and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the project. We’re hoping it will be a bit of a splash.”