Of all the death-haunted composers in history, Schubert and Mahler stand close to the top. Some of their most compelling music in this vein -- Schubert's Piano Sonata in B-flat, the slow movements from Mahler's 5th and 6th symphonies -- transform our fears into something emotionally complex and ennobling, paradoxically becoming a source of insight and comfort.
For its 19th annual festival finale, the iPalpiti Orchestra of International Laureates celebrated life, love and death at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night in a program of Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Schubert/Mahler.
Led by Russian conductor Eduard Schmieder, iPalpiti (Italian for "heartbeats"), consisting of 22 young professional string players from 18 countries, began with a solid account of Mendelssohn's well-crafted early String Symphony No. 10. It was a fine warmup for what came next: the complete orchestral arrangement of Tchaikovsky's evocative but seldom-performed "The Seasons," a set of 12 short character pieces originally composed for piano in 1876.
The score, musical evocations of each of the 12 months, offered a rich showcase for the ensemble's many gifts, including hushed pianissimo playing in "January: At the Fireside," and breathtaking agility throughout. Alan Chapman, a host and producer of KUSC Classical radio, served as narrator, reading short Russian poems in English translation, prefacing each month with invigorating directness.
The slight tinge of melancholy in "October: Autumn Song" hardly prepared listeners for Mahler's stunning 1894 arrangement for string orchestra of Schubert's late String Quartet in D minor "Death and the Maiden" (D.810), which came after intermission. At the time, Mahler was working on his "Resurrection" Symphony. The kinship between the two composers -- Schubert's rather innocent reckoning with his own mortality and Mahler's with his more modernist angst -- came through viscerally in a rendition of moving depth and humanity by Schmieder and the ensemble.
Oddly, at around 41 minutes -- the Busch Quartet's famous 1936 version comes in at 33 minutes -- Schmieder's reading felt spellbindingly concise. Best of all, he delivered a magisterial, perfectly paced account of the second movement Andante. Schmieder made the larger ensemble sound string quartet-like, with transparent textures, and maintained the intimacy of chamber music, which is often lost in Mahler's beefier version.
Enriching the score's sonority, Mahler added a double-bass to the ensemble, played here by Brooklyn-born iPalpiti newcomer Levi Jones. Incidentally, the superb cellists were also new to the group, including Ofer Canetti (Israel-Austria) and Carl-Oscar Osterlind (Denmark).
Schmieder dedicated the festival, which ran July 7-24, to violinist, conductor, teacher and humanitarian Yehudi Menuhin, in honor of his centenary. Menuhin, who was born in the U.S. and died in 1999 at age 82, was one of Schmieder's mentors and an early supporter of iPalpiti.
"Yehudi was a philosopher," Schmieder told the audience after the Mahler/Schubert. "We talked about life and death."
Menuhin once called young musicians "the connecting tissue of our humanity." Schmieder echoed this abiding hope in his comments. All gloom was quickly dispelled when the conductor and iPalpiti offered a rousing encore, Carl Bohm's "Perpetuum Mobile," performed with Ferrari-like speed and nimbleness.