Oregon Symphony review: Mega-Mahler

Orchestra's season-ending performance of Mahler's massive third symphony matches its epic scale


Gustav Mahler was never one to shy away from a challenge. Though his music is now considered the apotheosis of German Romanticism, he started his musical career at the bottom, in 1880 taking a job directing operettas in the small Austrian spa town Bad Hall, as well-named in English as it was in German.  He steadily rose through multiple directorships to the pinnacle of the field in central Europe, the Vienna Court Opera, facing down anti-Semitism along the way. (He did have to go through the motions of converting to Catholicism in 1897 to achieve this final step.) He wrote the longest symphonies of his day, for the most massive musical forces, and had a track record of getting them performed. And not least, when past 40 he courted and married 22-year-old Alma Schindler, who as one wag has pointed out, was quite possibly the smartest and loveliest eligible young woman in Vienna at the dawn of the 20th century.

The Oregon Symphony closed its 2015-16 season with a performance of Mahler's third symphony.

The Oregon Symphony closed its 2015-16 season with a performance of Mahler’s third symphony.

In the years just prior to his Vienna achievements, Mahler wrote his longest symphony yet, his third, which the Oregon Symphony closed its season with last month. Still the longest symphony in the standard repertory, it has six movements (half again the usual number), clocks in at well over an hour and a half, and maybe unsurprisingly, shows signs of growing pains: for once, even a Mahler maven sometimes has the feeling he’s just fleshing out a plan. Of course, there’s a plan behind every one of his nine completed symphonies, but normally listeners are so entranced by what he’s cooked up next that they never notice.

The Third seems to have been a watershed for the composer. While it rarely specifically refers to either of his previous symphonies, echoes of it can be found throughout his later work, notably in his Fourth, Sixth, and Ninth Symphonies. It seems to have taken a lot of effort to write; afterwards he took a break to write his shortest symphony.

It takes a lot of effort to play, too. Mahler was a demanding conductor of other composer’s works, and he also demands a lot from the musicians who perform and the organizations that produce his own music. All the wind instrument sections in his third symphony are larger than typical symphonic repertory (at the extreme, eight horns, double the usual number), and the wise conductor adds string players to match their volume. The variety of percussion instrumentation rivals today’s orchestral works, and there is both a women’s choir and youth choir as well as an alto soloist.

Oregon Symphony director Carlos Kalmar has honed the band into a reliable Mahler machine, with memorable, even awe-inspiring performances of the more commonly performed symphonies among its accomplishments. It was high time for them to tackle the challenging Third. I caught their May 23 performance, a fittingly grand finale for the orchestra’s 2015-2016 season.

The mega-symphony’s massive opening movement (roughly half an hour long) seems built up from huge musical blocks, all variations on three moods: solemn, sometimes funereal procession; mysterious atmosphere; and high-spirited, even swaggering marching. Sometimes the whole humongous band – the stage was extended into the front seats to accommodate the extra musicians required – pours out a flood of notes; sometimes a barely audible bass drum slowly divides the silence. Twice, a curtain seems to part, revealing something terrifying behind. The orchestra blows off the second instance, turns on a dime, then whirls to a quick, slam-bang finish.

If the OSO fell short anywhere it was in this movement. Often Mahler intends the high woodwinds – flutes, oboes, clarinets, and associated auxiliaries – to emit a raucous sound, as if evoking the dawn chorus of birds. But there were also times when more sweetly tuned harmony would have served the mood better. The lowest strings seemed pushed past the limits of their agility, although a few sudden gestures were all the more dramatic for it. Just after the entire horn section opens the work with a craggy unison tune that ranges somewhat high and very loud, they have to quickly relax lips for a low and very soft chorale. They didn’t all quite find their targets.

But these are relative quibbles. Brass is at the forefront of this movement and, other than that one phrase, the players really delivered. The section principals, Jeffrey Work on trumpet, John Cox on horn, and especially trombonist Robert Taylor in several extended solos, all got well-deserved roaring ovations when the whole performance was over, as did the entire brass section. Among too many other standouts to name – a typical dilemma when a Mahler symphony is performed well – special shout outs go to concertmaster Sarah Kwak for her many solos in many moods, and the entire gang of four flutists, who must all switch to piccolos on occasion.

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

The extreme contrasts of tempo and dynamics in the first movement give way to grace and humor in the following pair of movements, and here the orchestra was on more comfortable ground. Kalmar likes to move them right along, and they often seemed to positively dance, which was all the more delightful with such prodigious forces. But he also knew when to hold back and embrace a tender moment, and the band nimbly responded. Granted, Mahler helps out with tricks like cutting way back on the lowest brass and increasing the ratio of plucked to bowed strings.

The third movement’s cockeyed march, elaborated from an earlier song about the animals of the forest pretending to mourn Cuckoo’s death while pushing for him to be replaced by Nightingale, is interrupted by an interlude of utter repose, where an offstage flugelhorn is accompanied only by the softest strings and a few French horn and clarinet touches. Jeffrey Work’s long solo was flawless and sublime.

The following pair of movements is, like the first movement, a study in contrasts. The fourth, in which an alto soloist sings a text from Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, seems dragged down by the weight of humanity’s suffering, oozing mysteriously through darkest night. Kalmar set an appropriately contemplative tempo, giving time to consider each new harmony, each new sonority, each new pitch in the vocal line as beautifully spun out by mezzo-soprano Susan Platts. To further weaken the sense of measured time, Mahler made some of the earliest systematic use (in the European tradition) of groups of 5 and 7 notes to a beat, cannily realizing that even if a few musicians couldn’t quite divide up beats that way in their heads, the effect if anything would be enhanced.

The women of PSU's Chamber Choir and Vox Femina also performed (this time offstage) with the Oregon Symphony in this season's 'The Planets.'

The women of PSU’s Chamber Choir and Vox Femina also performed (this time offstage) with the Oregon Symphony in this season’s ‘The Planets.’

Holding listeners’ attention with such drawn-out music is a challenge for any orchestra, but the OSO pulled it off well enough that when the Pacific Youth Choir suddenly started up their bright, rhythmic vocalizations in imitation of church bells at the beginning of the fifth movement, I almost looked around for the magic wand that scattered the stardust. They were soon joined by Platts and the choral voices of Portland State University women in a setting of the German folksong “Three Angels Were Singing” as lively and sparkling as the previous movement was still and dark.

After a pregnant pause, Mahler issues what may be the biggest challenge of the whole symphonic structure. In place of the traditional light, high-spirited finale, which the previous movement hinted at like a spoonful of a culinary delight abruptly whisked from under your nose, he dishes out a full-throated, complex adagio (think Samuel Barber’s funereal Adagio for Strings but centered on unconditional love rather than sorrow, and much longer). It’s a series of slow builds that, depending on your mood and the quality of the performance, may be anywhere from heavenly to excruciating. You’ve already been sitting over an hour, and it’s going to seem as long as that massive first movement – longer if you drank too much coffee just beforehand.

Carlos Kalmar. Photo via Oregon Symphony

Carlos Kalmar. Photo via Oregon Symphony

Kalmar accepted the challenge: he set a completely unhurried pace, and the orchestra responded with long, steadily growing swells of sound. Even when the anguished mid-movement climax – one final look behind that terrifying curtain – collapsed into an impossibly tender reprise of the fervent opening tune, beginning yet another slow swell, not even then did my coffee make any move to distract me.

A decade later, shouldering the weight of multiple sorrows, Mahler would rework, distill, and intensify the musical material of this final adagio – which he originally planned to subtitle “What Love tells me” – into the finale of his last completed symphony, fading it out in a sunset of resignation. But his star was rising fast in the mid-1890s. As the whole of the OSO came together for the final climax to the triumphant conclusion, it was impossible to resist being carried away. Kalmar even released the final chord like it was a long, heartfelt hug instead of going for the traditional impact of a full orchestra high five. Walking out into the warm, fragrant night afterwards, it seemed certain, as it must have seemed to Mahler then, that love conquers all.

You can hear a recording of the OSO’s performance of Mahler’s third symphony online or on air at All Classical Portland radio on Thursday, June 23.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, who has never been the same since he first heard Mahler’s ninth symphony at the tender age of 13.

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