Approach Mahler with 'ears and a heart'

Posted: Thursday, October 21, 2010

If you're headed to the symphony this weekend to hear Gustav Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, and you're tempted to fortify yourself by reading up on the complex work before you go, do Mahler a favor and don't read his program notes. Better yet, avoid any source that tries to tell you what the piece means.

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Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire
Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire

Mahler, who wrote at least three sets of illustrative program notes for his Symphony No. 2 in C minor, had a conflicted relationship with textual descriptions of his music - especially his own - ultimately deciding they were a "crutch."

"No music is worth anything if first you have to tell the listener what experience lies behind it and what he is supposed to experience in it," Mahler wrote in a letter in 1902. "And so yet again, to hell with every program!"

Listeners needed "ears and a heart" to guide them, he wrote.

Symphony conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett, who will lead the Juneau Symphony's performance of the piece Saturday and Sunday, said Mahler's symphonies, like Shakespeare's plays, could sustain a lifetime of study, and yet remain very accessible to people who come to them knowing nothing.

"(Symphony No. 2 is) incredibly sophisticated in the way he moves from the funeral to resurrection, but you don't have to know anything about it to feel it," he said. "It connects directly to you."

Though Mahler resisted the idea of steering listeners toward a particular narrative, and didn't give a title to his second symphony, its themes are undeniable, from the "Todtenfeier" (Celebration of the Dead) of the ferocious first movement to the "Die Auferstehung" (Resurrection Ode) of the uplifting finale. The spirit of the piece is also made explicit in the choral verses of the final two movements: "Oh Death, thou masterer of all things / Now art thou mastered!" The choral element explicitly links it to Beethoven's Ninth, but Pickett said it's much less formal in structure.

"The form is all there but its much more modernist in its sensitivity. It's like Beethoven on steroids."

Mahler's modernism was not particularly well-received by critics of his day; in fact, most dismissed the second symphony as complex and bombastic. When he played the first movement for Hans von Bulow, who, like Mahler, was a famous conductor in the late 1880s (and was the indirect inspiration for the Resurrection Symphony's finale), he listened with his hands over his ears, then remarked "If what I have heard is music, I understand nothing about music!"

Leonard Bernstein, who helped feed a Mahler revival in the 1960s, felt rejection of Mahler's work was often due to the fact that it expressed truths about life and death that made audiences uncomfortable. "It simply was too true," Bernstein said.

But for modern audiences, that visceral quality is one of the things that gives it such power, Pickett said.

"Mahler takes the audience on a journey in a way that really few other composers do," he said. "You get to the ending and people weep - people are just crying in their seats."

The sheer musical forces working to pull off the symphony are also part of its draw, he said.

"This sound just completely overwhelms you and washes over you."

The concert is the biggest the Juneau Symphony has ever undertaken. There will be at least 80 musicians, including borrowed talent from Sitka, Haines, Hoonah, Fairbanks and Anchorage, and a chorus of about 65, including two soloists, soprano and formal Juneauite Joyce Parry Moore and visiting mezzo soprano Beth Madsen Bradford. That brings the total number of performers close to 150. Given the scope of the piece, Pickett enlisted the help of Todd Hunt, who will direct the chorus.

"This piece is so big it uses a couple conductors," he said.

The resources required to perform the piece mean it isn't attempted very often outside of the cities, Pickett said, and is a rare opportunity for Juneau. He thinks it's possible that this is the first time the work is being performed in Alaska.

Pickett began studying the score three years ago this month, pouring over Mahler's "very detailed and very vague" instructions for how the piece should be performed as the Juneau rain and wind lashed the windows. Though the instructions are extensive - the score is more than 300 pages in length - there is plenty of room for personal interpretation, making every conductor's approach unique, Pickett said, and each performance a one-time thing.

"There are certain pieces that you have to hear live, and this is one of those," he said.

Sources consulted for this article include The Kennedy Center's , Boston Symphony Orchestra program notes and Michael Steinburg's book "The Symphony."



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