“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.
Eden MacAdam-Somer’s reworking of the “Des Knaben Wunderhorn’’ song “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’’ proved that Mahler and marimba go together, but the vocals didn’t have the necessary satirical bite. Singing was also a problem in the three selections from “Das Lied von der Erde’’: Though the ensemble under Charles Peltz did a fine job with Schoenberg’s chamber-orchestra arrangements, the vocalists’ pop and jazzy styles didn’t blend with Mahler’s chinoiserie, and the performances, in English, also suffered from balky microphones.
MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran improvised on the piano while the NEC Chamber Orchestra played the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, and there was a wonderful moment right before the return to the main section where the first violins paused on their high B and he threw in some unsettling chords. I wish in general he had been less discreet.
The evening ended with Ran Blake, shrouded in near-darkness, playing his piano tribute “Mahler Noir.’’ The only Mahler I detected was a snatch of the Ninth Symphony’s finale (there was also a snippet from “Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume’’), and I couldn’t make out the individual sections (“Conversion,’’ “Death of Maria,’’ “Auf Wiedersehen Wien,’’ etc.) of the piece, but it was a fitting conclusion.