Juneau Symphony orchestra tackles Mahler's 'Titan'; Juneau-Douglas High School pianist Abraham Levy to play Grieg concerto

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2005

Juneau Symphony orchestra Kyle Wiley Pickett considers Gustav Mahler's "Symphony No. 1," also known as "Titan," to be the most musically challenging piece the orchestra has attempted.

"It's a pretty mammoth undertaking just to do a Mahler symphony," Pickett said. "I like to say it's sort of like a test for an orchestra. He's one of those composers that not very many community orchestras are able to play, because his works are just so huge in scope and scale."

The orchestra normally imports about a dozen players for size and volume. For "Titan," they're adding 16, for a total of close to 80 members.

The piece itself is just an hour long - Mahler's shortest symphony - and will be the second half of the symphony's upcoming winter concert, 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 30, at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium.

The concert's first half includes George Frederick Handel's overture to "The Music for the Royal Fireworks," and Edward Grieg's "Piano Concerto No. 1 in A minor," featuring JDHS senior Abraham Douglas Levy on piano.

Tickets are available at Hearthside Books or online at http://www.juneausymphony.org.

KTOO-FM will broadcast Sunday afternoon's performance live, and the symphony also will perform a student assembly concert for fourth- and fifth-graders on the morning of Friday, Jan. 28.

"There are some pieces that we've done that might require more outright musical skill, being able to play faster and cleaner," Pickett said. "But the Mahler is probably technically the most difficult thing we've ever done."

Mahler (1860-1911) was born in Bohemia, Austria, and was most influenced by Richard Wagner. He combined romanticism with the sheer power of resources.

The symphony will use eight horns, instead of the normal four, five or six trumpets, four clarinets, four flutes, two piccolos and a larger string section than usual.

"Mahler writes for a big, giant orchestra and treats it like a chamber orchestra," Pickett said. "He'll do this really little intimate section, and then you're hit with the full power of the orchestra and then you're back to the intimate sound. Everybody in the orchestra has to have a complete sense of what's going on in the whole piece. It's the difference between a 100-piece puzzle and a 10,000-piece puzzle."

Mahler called his first symphony, "Titan," out of homage to German author Jean Paul's novel of the same name (written between 1800 and 1803). The music, however, tells a different story.

The title refers to a heroic character, probably Mahler himself, notes Pickett. Mahler was known as a self-absorbed egomaniac. His second symphony is called "The Resurrection." And his eighth, "The Symphony of 1,000," was written for an orchestra and chorus of 1,000 members, Pickett said. Even at 21, when he completed his first symphony, he had a sense of bombast. In some ways, "Titan" can be seen as his declaration of arrival on the world stage. In real life, he was better known as a conductor than a composer until the mid-20th century.

"There's a famous story where he and the conductor Bruno Walter were taking a train trip through the Alps," Pickett said. "Bruno was looking at the tops of the mountains and saying, 'This is amazing! What a view!' Mahler said, 'You don't have to look up there, I've already written all of that.'"

The first movement of "Titan" is intended to be the story of youth, Pickett said. The second, often called, "Under Sail," chronicles the hero's journey across the world. In the third movement, the titan comes across a funeral march and must come to terms with witnessing death for the first time. The last movement, called "The Cry of a Broken Heart," captures the hero's descent.

Winter Concert

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 30.

Where: Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium.

Tickets available:Hearthside Books or http://www.juneausymphony.org.

Program: George Frederick Handel's overture to "The Music for the Royal Fireworks," Edward Grieg's "Piano Concerto No. 1 in A minor," featuring JDHS senior Abraham Douglas Levy on piano, and Gustav Mahler's "Symphony No. 1."

"Mahler had his heart broken many times," Pickett said. "And he sort of goes through this process - the extreme pain of heartbreak and then a resurrection of sorts. He really goes in big, broad themes."

The program will begin with Handel's 1749 overture to "Music for the Royal Fireworks," a huge piece originally written for 12 oboes, 18 French horns, 24 trumpets and "as many strings as you could put together," Pickett said.

"The Mahler is a tremendously romantic piece, as lush and beautiful as a piece can be, and so I wanted to give us something that would really contrast," Pickett said.

"The Handel, being a baroque piece, is also beautiful and rousing, but the difference between baroque and romantic is the difference between lemonade and punch," he said. "Punch is so sweet, but lemonade has a real sweetness and a tanginess. The tanginess of the baroque is a great contrast to the lushness of the romantic."

Levy was the grand prize winner of the symphony's 2004 Youth Concerto Competition for his presentation of the first movement of Grieg's "Piano Concerto No. 1 in A Minor."

He's been playing piano since he was eight and recently played bass during Ursa Major String Ensemble's 2004 trip to China. Last week, he found out he was accepted to Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.

Grieg (1843-1907) is generally regarded as Norway's greatest composer, and in fact, he sought to promote Norwegian nationalism by creating his own sound.

"The role of the orchestra in the Grieg is almost entirely accompaniment," Pickett said. "It's really all about the piano."

In 1905, Grieg led a group of artists in persuading the Norwegian government that war with Sweden was not the best way to achieve sovereignty, according to Norway.com. That same year, the two countries settled peacefully.

The Sons of Norway are sponsoring Levy in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of Norway's freedom, and the 70th anniversary of the Sons of Norway, Svalbard Lodge #33, in Juneau.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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