Thursday, March 22, 2012

Embracing the World of Gustav Mahler

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In the fall  of 1907, occurred one of those moments in history where I imagine many people, myself included, would have loved to have been a fly on the wall. Gustav Mahler arrived in Helsinki to conduct a concert, and during his stay there spent a day with Jean Sibelius. At the time, no one could imagine that one hundred years later these two men would be considered the two greatest symphonists of the era. Mahler was more famous as a conductor, and his music was considered eccentric, and Sibelius was just starting to become an international figure. It seems that they got along well enough, although there was no immediate spark, and Sibelius did not ask Mahler to conduct his music (nor did Mahler offer to). They did have what sounds like a most interesting discussion on the meaning of a Symphony. Mahler thought a Symphony should be "like the world" and "embrace everything" (he was working on No.8 at the time) while Sibelius thought that a Symphony was all about "the inner logic that unites all the themes by an inner band".  When moving from preparing a Sibelius Symphony to preparing a Mahler Symphony I was immediately struck by the emotional difference created by preparing such different works. In both cases, you try to work out balances, you try to create a complete picture of the whole, you work relentlessly on transitions, but I find that despite the fact that Mahler's themes have a great deal of internal connections, what matters most is finding the right color for every moment of the score, whereas with Sibelius it was trying to see how each moment fit into and enhanced the whole work. I felt there were very few options for developing and building climaxes in Sibelius, and that we had to work them out within certain parameters or the work would not read correctly. In the case of Mahler, there seemed to be many more possibilities (and certainly the diversity of successful performances supports that idea) but one must create unity through the use and development of color rather than the thematic material itself.

And the colors in Mahler are quite something. Both middle movements depend on creating a calculated satirical effect, which means doing away with conventional notions of what sounds good and "pretty". I heard somewhere-I wish I could find or remember the source- that Mahler thought the second movement was everything he hated about the country and the third was everything he hated about the city. The second, with its clumsy and vulgar popular music and folk ideas, and the overt satire of academic music in the third movement present real challenges to the interpreter. Do you go overboard on all of this? How clearly do you underline the satire? How vulgar should the Eb Clarinet really be? Will the audience know you are joking? Do you aim for clarity in the third movement in the moments where there is too much happening at  once, or do you underline that the whole thing is really a mess? Then there is the supreme challenge of the piece-the last page of the last movement, where music and silence merge, where it is almost impossible in a good performance to know when the piece has ended. How do you manage that?

I am still in the process of working through all this, and there are no right answers. I already know that preparing Mahler means embracing the extreme things he throws at you, and it means breaking down musical inhibitions. If you do it right, the audience will also experience the catharsis of something incredibly intense, inspirational and profound. Come hear this wonderful work in the next MusicaNova Orchestra program-on Sunday April 29 at 4PM at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts .