“What happens when Classical Music misses its subway stop and gets off at Improvisation?’’ That’s how New England Conservatory set up Tuesday evening’s “Mahler in Chinatown’’ installment of its ongoing “Mahler Unleashed’’ season. NEC faculty member Anthony Coleman recalls having read that Mahler, in his Metropolitan Opera years, used to go to Chinatown with bass Feodor Chaliapin to drink Chinese tea. In his own music, Mahler visited “Chinatown’’ only in the late song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde,’’ but Chinatown, as we know from the 1974 Roman Polanski film, is also a state of mind.
At Jordan Hall, NEC’s faculty and students were of a mind to take Mahler’s music to many different subway stops. The most successful of the 11 pieces was Coleman’s “recomposition’’ of the Scherzo from the Third Symphony for his Survivors Breakfast ensemble. This was a village-band depiction of Mahler’s scurrying forest animals, complete with klezmer shadings and a luscious trumpet solo from Nigel Taylor, the offstage effect achieved by draping a cloth over the bell. Fausto Sierakowski’s saxophone worked well here and in a saxophone-and-electric-guitar riff on the Scherzo from the Fourth Symphony, where he was able to conjure Mahler’s scordatura violin.