Our Meetings with Mahler

Through 2011, a centennial festival of symphony and song in the composer’s honor and a series of enchanted May evenings

Thomas Hampson with conductor Philippe Jordan and the musicians of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester | Photo courtesy of Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester

Gustav Mahler died 100 years ago this month, on May 18, 1911. And as concert planners will do, they have designated the centenary of his passing Mahler Year in his honor. For Mahler fans all over the world, performances of his music abound: there is a bewildering choice of upcoming events to choose from. And by far, the one city that is rightfully Mahler’s is Vienna, where the tribute to the man and his music is moving along in full swing.

Vienna has the problem, if you can call it such, of hosting four world-class orchestras and two world-class concert halls. And none is particularly interested in coordinating, much less sharing, resources – or should one say, treasures. Nevertheless, despite Vienna not putting on a single “Mahler Festival” per se, in the first four months of this year we have already been invited to a Feast. With a little careful and persistent planning, it has been possible to hear nearly all of Mahler’s symphonies, for example. And that’s only the beginning.

The calendar has been full; barely a week has gone by without a Mahler concert that was not to be missed. And they have been enchanted evenings all.

At the turn of the last century, Gustav Mahler was one of most famous conductors in the world and Vienna was, as it is today, the music capital of Central Europe. Thus it follows that Vienna was the seat of his celebrity and glory: Mahler held the post of director at the Staatsoper for ten years, from 1897 to 1907. Then surprisingly, he left this dream job – or was driven away, most likely a victim of his own perfectionism. This, despite the very same fastidiousness having lifted the Vienna opera’s mediocre standards substantially.

Gustav Mahler, 1860-1911; Head and shoulders, facing left

Aimé Dupont's 1909 portrait of Gustav Mahler while in New York | Source: U.S. Library of Congress

World renowned, he was invited to New York where he conducted for two years. “Since [New Yorkers] are completely unprejudiced, I hope I shall here find fertile ground for my works and thus a spiritual home,” he wrote hopefully of his new city. But on 21 Feb. 1911, the composer-conductor directed a last concert in New York, already terminally ill with an incurable heart ailment. Returning to Vienna, he conducted a final concert, his own Second symphony, known as the “Resurrection,” and then passed away, in his 51st year.

Nevertheless, the “fertile ground” of America did indeed prove a receptive home for Mahler’s work. His music is loved there to a degree that has only gradually been rivaled in Europe.

A prodigiously talented conductor, in his lifetime Mahler became known as a composer relatively late. One reason for his tardy composing debut may have been an early setback: In 1881, at the age of 21, he submitted a score of Das Klagende Lied to be considered for the prestigious Beethoven Prize. The judges rejected it, and from then on, Mahler devoted most of his time and energy to conducting. Nevertheless, he continued to compose, in a clear and steady hand as his manuscripts show. He produced his first symphony during a two-year conducting engagement in Leipzig, and premièred it in 1889. Reviews were mixed. As described by Alex Ross in his superb book on the music of the 20th century, The Rest Is Noise, the response was “a mixture of applause, boos and shrugs.”

Mahler’s oeuvre is not large: it consists primarily of nine symphonies, an unfinished 10th, and some orchestral song cycles. He did not go in for the delicacies of chamber music, and surprisingly, the opera director also never wrote an opera. His is not easy music. The symphonies are long, rocketing past logical endings again and again, and are often gruesomely loud, at times even grotesquely and deliberately jarring the ear and the senses. The crescendo of tonal and nearly atonal sound gains in intensity and momentum, the orchestration is pushed to new levels. Horns, trumpets and trombones number in the dozens, the percussionists seem to find ever-larger mallets to hit the drums. And then is a sudden drop into nothingness, as if death with its silent, eternal slumber has come.

Yet we succumb. An apotheosis, we are led to a new dimension of musical awareness. Mahler’s music is at once brutal and sublime, angelic and tear-jerking, sardonic and nostalgic. There are subtle yet sudden shifts, of minor to major and back again, lyric melodies interrupted by “pop ups” of what might be perceived as irrational noise. But it is not random; it is all masterfully and yet deceptively deliberate. The strong emotions of our everyday life (anger, despair, joy, compassion) are pierced by sporadic sunshine and child-like levity and delight.

In 1910 Mahler underwent an analytic session with Sigmund Freund in the form of a four-hour walk. Despite the episode being unfortunately splashed all over movie theaters last fall in the miserably mushy film Mahler on the Couch, it was the doctor of the unconscious who was able to describe the poignancy of Mahler’s music perhaps most succinctly: “Fixed in his mind,” Freud wrote, “was the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement.”

In the last four months we have met Mahler nearly a dozen times. To begin, concerts by all of those (uncoordinated) Viennese orchestras. Thrice the Sixth symphony, with as many orchestras: the Vienna Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic and the Tonkünstler Orchestra. Luckily the Radio Symphony Orchestra switched the program and performed the Fifth, with its languorously, lyrical Adagietto (and stunning horn solos by their own Péter Keserü). And a couple of weeks later, the Vienna Symphony again performed Mahler: a Second Symphony that brought tears of joy, or was it transcendence, to some members of the Musikverein’s standing room audience.

February brought us the Ninth, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on their first European tour in 31 years, a programming choice that some orchestra members thought daring for a concert here, land of Mahler. They needn’t have worried: their dynamic “dude” of a conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, is already a darling of the Viennese concert crowd.

On the first day of spring, suitably, we heard the Fourth, with its nearly chamber music clarity and heavenly gentleness, played by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. It was a celebration of graceful, intimate festiveness.

And most impressive to date: Two evenings of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester under Philippe Jordan, performing the First, the fragment Adagio of the Tenth, and Das Lied von der Erde, Song of the Earth, where we reveled in the voice of Thomas Hampson. But Jordan was even more of a marvel, his entire body exuding energy and his gracefully sweeping left arm drawing ever more power from his young charges: Knockout wind and brass players, and unbelievable sensitivity in the strings, with moments of whispering, glistening shimmer and expansive sweeps of colors that no eye has ever seen.

What a pleasure to hear the First symphony again, with its clouds of cuckoos and dingling cow bells. It is quirky and evocative, it awakens the senses, stimulates the imagination, takes you to the hills and towards a distant homeland of yore. The third movement opens with the tune of Frère Jacques, scurrilously played by a double bass in a minor mode, interrupted by a bewitching, burlesque Klezmer band that comes and goes. The familiar tune evokes an image from Mahler’s song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn: a hunter’s funeral with his coffin being carried respectfully and ceremoniously to its final resting place by an array of four-legged forest dwellers…foxes, deer, boars and elks. We literally hear Mahler’s love of nature; his parody of the hunted prey burying the predator tells us much about his relationship to the animal kingdom.

The concert schedule in the “Mahler Month” of May continues the mad pace. On the 18th, the anniversary of Mahler’s death, the Philharmonic will be performing his Ninth symphony at the Staatsoper, with a pre-concert lecture by the Mahler expert Gilbert Kaplan (and all proceeds going to the Japanese Red Cross). This year’s 35th International Music Festival at the Konzerthaus carries the motto “Mahler and America”; with over 70 concerts from mid-May until 21 June, there is plenty of Mahler to be heard. Six of his symphonies will be played: the Vienna Philharmonic is opening the festival with Mahler, followed by performances by the San Francisco Symphony, the Bamberg Symphony and the Vienna Symphony. A Mahler symposium will be held, and a film installation “Mahler Portraits” can be seen on several days through the month. And the Musikverein is bringing a highlight as well: the New York Philharmonic and another performance of the Fifth.

It’s Leipzig, however, not to be outdone by Vienna, that is putting on the best Mahler show this year: In just 14 days, from May 17–29, all ten symphonies and the Lieder cycles are being performed by the greatest orchestras on earth: from Leipzig’s own Gewandhaus Orchestra to Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. It will be pure drama: a nearly non-stop Mahler marathon that will probably be too much to absorb, even for the most hardened Mahlerites.

Last year in Vienna the Theater Museum staged a fine, yet modestly visited Mahler exhibit (commemorating Mahler’s 150th birthday). Even Paris, in its own special way, is paying tribute to the composer’s works with an excellent exhibit at the Paris d’Orsay Museum, open only until the end of this month. Most impressive there, at least for Mahlerites like us, is a facsimile of the entire manuscript of the Fourth symphony laid out page by page at reading level, surrounding the entire exhibit, accompanied by a recording of the London Philharmonic playing the same piece. A perfect combination of sound and space. How revealing to see Mahler’s repeated admonitions to remain calm, in blue pencil in his careful hand, the exclamation points sharp and emphatic: nicht eilen!, gemächlich!, zurückhaltend!, sehr langsam! – don’t rush, leisurely, with restraint, very slowly. This written by a man who was described by his wife Alma as “never a moment still.”

It is Klangzauber. Soundmagic.

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