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Giving voice to Mahler's emotional depth

If Janis Taylor is the soloist with the Florida Orchestra, then music of Gustav Mahler must be on the program. Taylor has been featured in the second and third symphonies and, most recently, in a 1995 performance of Mahler's epic song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde.

"I think I was born to sing his music," Taylor, a mezzo-soprano, said from her home in New York.

Taylor is the soloist this week in a Mahler orchestra song cycle that has come to be known collectively as his Ruckert Lieder, five songs set to poetry by Friedrich Ruckert. Also on the all-Mahler program, with music director Jahja Ling conducting, are Symphony No. 1 and Blumine, originally written as a movement of the symphony but later deleted by the composer.

Ling's very first concert as music director in the fall of 1988 included the First Symphony. He has conducted much of Mahler during his tenure, with only the seventh and eighth left undone among the symphonies. He will lead the orchestra in Symphony No. 7 next season, but it will take some special circumstances to allow the programing of Symphony No. 8, Mahler's "Symphony of 1,000" performers that requires eight vocal soloists, three choirs and a huge orchestra.

Ling considers the 1991 performance of Mahler's mammoth Third Symphony, with Taylor as the soloist, and her rendition of Das Lied von der Erde, as two of the most memorable programs of his time in front of the orchestra.

Aside from some youthful forays into opera and chamber music, Mahler wrote only songs, primarily with orchestral accompaniment, and symphonies. Ling likes the idea of pairing a symphony and song cycle on the same program.

"The First Symphony is rooted in folk song," he said. "The first movement starts with a melody from Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer, and there are other songs quoted later on."

The Ruckert Lieder, which can be sung by either a female or male soloist, is not as widely known as other Mahler songs, such as the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children).

"It's different from any of his other cycles," Taylor said. "So much of what Mahler wrote has this darkness, this certain sadness, and these songs are lighter and brighter. Only when he gets to two of them _ Um Mitternacht, in which he speaks of midnight, and one about being lost to the world, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen _ does one get the hint of what we commonly think of Mahler in his songs, the searching, the questioning."

Taylor recently came across a passage in one of Mahler's letters suggesting that the composer regarded his response to Ruckert's Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen not so much as a renunciation of the world but as an expression of the joy he took in the solitude of composing in the summer, when he got a break from his busy conducting career in Vienna and New York and retreated to a cabin in the Austrian mountains.

"I think it's the most beautiful song of any that he has written,"she said, likening it to Mahler's famous Adagietto for harp and strings from his Fifth Symphony. "It is the most intense song I have ever known that never has a forte in it."

Taylor is billed as a mezzo-soprano, but she is often described as a contralto. Is there a real difference between the two voice types?

"The classification of mezzo has changed," she said. "In the older classification system, I'm a mezzo-soprano, but now there are brighter, lighter voices calling themselves mezzo-soprano, so that shifts my category down to contralto. It's just a title."

Taylor also has sung soprano parts, as in the vocal solo of Mahler's Fourth Symphony that she performed with the San Francisco Symphony. "It is unusual for someone to sing both the Third Symphony and the Kindertotenlieder and the Fourth Symphony," she said. "The range that's required is usually not found in the same voice. I have a good full low range, but I also have an upper extension that allows me to sing some soprano repertoire."

Mahler died in 1911, and it took half a century before his music came into vogue, with conductors Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein and Rafael Kubelik championing his cause. Today, his symphonies are what orchestras program when they want to make a statement.

Ling thinks the autobiographical quality of the music is a key to its popularity, as well as the composer's masterful deployment of the orchestra. "Mahler can say something emotionally to the listener, because his orchestration is so down to earth, so easy to grasp," he said.

Taylor ventures two possible explanations for why Mahler's time is now. One involves the sheer size of the orchestra he calls for and its massive sound, which she thinks may have more success getting through to modern audiences whose hearing has been dulled by the electronic amplification of music.

"Maybe people are losing the ability to appreciate a more delicate, softer music, and they need the power and volume of the big sound," she said. "What I would hasten to say lest people think Mahler is only bombast is that the contrast within his music is incredible. In the space of a huge symphony, he will use at various times only a handful of instruments and get the most transparent of textures and the most delicate of balances."

She also thinks Mahler's music touches a spiritual chord. "It reaches a deeper spiritual place, and people need that in a world where stress levels are greater than in any other time," she said.

Taylor's first exposure to Mahler came when she was a student in Toronto and took a master class given on his vocal music by contralto Maureen Forrester.

"I studied the songs over a week and a half to get ready for class," Taylor said. "It was a bit like a gourmand who stuffs himself at the buffet table and can't get enough of the sweets. I couldn't get enough of this music. At that point I knew Mahler was going to play a major part in my life."

And so it has.

"I have such a strong affinity to the warm, lyrical, emotional, passionate, even painful music of Mahler," Taylor said. "There's something about the range and the depth of feeling and expression that is very much in synchronization with my spirit. It enriches me."