Mahler resounding

Anniversaries prompt renewed focus on the man and his music

September 18, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Gustav Mahler no longer needs champions. The composer famously said, "My time will come," at the turn of the 20th century, when critics and audiences were likely to be dismissive or derogatory. But for the past five decades or so, his music has been heard just about everywhere, every year.

Still, Mahler will enjoy more limelight than usual during the 2010-2011 season, and that will have his fans in constant anticipation mode. No less than six of Mahler's nine completed symphonies will be performed in the Baltimore/Washington area, not to mention "Das Lied von der Erde," "Kindertotenlieder," "Ruckert Lieder" and the first movement of the unfinished Tenth Symphony.

Two matters of chronology have prompted all the attention. Aptly, given Mahler's own obsessions with life and death, these anniversaries have to do with the composer's entrance and exit. He was born 150 years ago, on July 7, 1860, in the Bohemian town of Kalischt; he died on May 18, 1911, in Vienna.

Although some people remain unmoved by Mahler — they are more to be pitied than censured — many listeners are known to become thoroughly transported or deeply shaken up by the experience of hearing his music.

And Mahler fans are hardly of one type. He appeals to those with musically romantic tendencies, folks ever drawn to the likes of, say, Tchaikovsky; he appeals as well to super-intellectuals who wouldn't be caught dead listening to the works of that emotional 19th-century Russian fellow. Melodists love Mahler, but so do atonalists. Upbeat types can find Mahler exhilarating, while depressive types can wrap themselves in the darker, bleaker elements in his music and even be the happier for it.

There isn't a single symphony by Mahler that plays steadfastly by the rules of the game, that goes in totally predictable directions. Within the span of one movement, a wealth of moods and colors and images can be conjured up. Unexpected things happen all the time, and they still surprise after innumerable encounters.

The gentle sounds of mandolin and guitar, for example, during the second of "Night Music" movements of Symphony No. 7 are as exotic as they are perfect. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, led by Marin Alsop, will perform the Seventh this week.

The sleigh bells that accompany the opening of Symphony No. 4 provide more than just aural novelty. Like Proust's famed madeleine, the sound suddenly opens up a whole nostalgic world of feelings, memories and, perhaps, long-forgotten desires. Christoph Eschenbach, who begins his tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra this season, will conduct the Fourth in the spring. (A New York critic, after hearing this symphony in the early 1900s, called the experience "the most painful music torture" he had ever endured. Tastes have changed.)

In "Das Lied von der Erde" ("The Song of the Earth") for two vocalists and orchestra, Mahler uses ancient Chinese poems to explore his favorites themes — yes, life and death — in such fresh and profound ways that you may feel you have learned more about both than you ever did before. Mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe and tenor Simon O'Neill join Alsop and the BSO for "Das Lied" in May. The month before, the Peabody Camerata will offer a chamber music arrangement of this compelling work.

The words "Mahler and monumentality" go together. His symphonies were longer, larger and louder than anyone's before him. For this, he was reviled, of course ("musical monstrosity" was one of the more polite comments in the press). But Mahler didn't think big for the sake of bigness. He really did see a symphony as a universe unto itself, with all the power and scope that implies.

Always conscious of everyday contrasts around him, especially those found in the same vicinity at the same time — poverty and wealth; contentment and misery; beauty and hideousness — Mahler quite naturally sought sonic extremes as well. When he visited Niagara Falls, he reportedly said: "Fortissimo at last!"

For sheer impact, it's hard to beat the sound of Symphony No. 8, nicknamed "Symphony of a Thousand" because of all the singers and instrumentalists involved. "Imagine the whole universe begins to vibrate and resound," Mahler said about this score.

When the assembled multitudes burst forth at the opening — a bracing and embracing treatment of the Latin hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus" — all that vibrating and resounding can easily set off chills. The subsequent movement, a setting of lines from Part II of Goethe's "Faust," achieves a truly mystical effect, even if some of the text can be a little mystifying. The cosmic release of the closing minutes reveals a simple, yet overwhelming, message: The universe is eternal, and we are forever a part of it. It's enough to shake a non-believer's will.

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