Symphony, Sasha Cooke Sweep Listeners Off Their Feet — and Bring Them Back Down with 'Songs of the Earth'

Symphony, Sasha Cooke Sweep Listeners Off Their Feet — and Bring Them Back Down with 'Songs of the Earth'

Sasha Cooke (photo by Stephanie Girard)

THE HOUSTON SYMPHONY’S Songs of the Earth festival, a two-week series of concerts exploring the influence of Asian music on the Western canon and vice versa, begins this weekend.

The lineup kicks off with Gustav Mahler’s orchestral song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), featuring tenor Clay Hilley and Texas-raised, Grammy award-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Cooke wowed audiences as Thirza in the Houston Grand Opera’s October 2022 acclaimed production of The Wreckers, and this weekend is an opportunity to hear her sing in a very different setting. Houston Symphony Music Director Juraj Valčuha conducts.

The sound of Das Lied von der Erde is intimate and transparent; Mahler uses the voice to express his deepest thoughts and emotions in a chamber music-like landscape, making it one of Cooke’s favorite pieces to sing. “Mahler really relates to the mezzo,” says Cooke. “It often feels like it’s autobiographical, and that his voice is coming through the mezzo.”

The words Mahler chose to set for Das Lied von der Erde come from a collection of classical Chinese poetry, freely translated by German poet Hans Bethge. While the lyrics for the tenor’s three songs are set in what Cooke describes as a “human living space” — with vivid descriptions of being young, wild, and free, as well as drinking to stave off feelings of sadness and existential dread — the mezzo’s songs, especially the cycle’s sixth and final movement “The Farewell,” are more contemplative and nuanced.

For “The Farewell,” a nearly 30-minute meditation on friendship, finality, and fate, Mahler chose to write the very last stanza himself, bringing the work quietly to a close with an unresolved interval and a single repeated word: éwig (eternal). For Cooke, the ending isn’t an expression of resignation, but an affirmation of transcendence, and of how we somehow live on after death, especially in art.

“Because Mahler was in touch with death so much, I think he knew he would live on in his song,” says Cooke. “His song was him. We live on in what we do.”

Born in 1983 in Riverside, Calif., Cooke grew up in College Station and now lives in The Woodlands with her husband baritone Kelly Markgraf and their two daughters, ages 6 and 11. She appreciates the solace of living in a tree-filled community and “the medicine of a deer coming by” the windows when she sings at home. Nature metaphors abound throughout Das Lied von der Erde, and Cooke imagines Mahler drew inspiration from the Dolomite Mountains and the natural landscape that surrounded the hut where he composed the work. (Mahler had just been diagnosed with heart disease, which prevented him from one of his favorite pastimes: walking and bicycling in nature.)

“Mahler puts you in a meditative state,” says Cooke, who admits after performing Das Lied von der Erde it takes a little time for her to come back down to earth.

“You’ve been in another realm,” she says of the time onstage. “You kind of leave yourself, but you’re also really in yourself. You’re more there than ever.”

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