By JEFF WINSLOW
Virtuosos and Mahler symphonies draw classical music lovers in droves, and have been known to seduce more than a few newbies as well. The Oregon Symphony has repeatedly proved its mettle with the music of Gustav Mahler over the last several years, so I wasn’t surprised to see Portland’s 2,700-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall full for the second performance of his Symphony #5 last month. Not only that, director Carlos Kalmar opened with Josef Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C, an inspired choice for a tricky programming decision – distinctive and weighty enough to stand up to Mahler’s technicolor extravaganza without competing directly – and a fine sendoff for the OSO’s Artist in Residence, internationally renowned cellist Alban Gerhardt, in the final year of his three-year residency.
It would be hard to say whether Gerhardt or Mahler brought in more fans, but either way, at such times, rumors of the death of classical music seem wildly exaggerated.
Why might the draw have been mostly Gerhardt? He had just finished up with a round of free outreach concerts in venues throughout the metro area, including schools. He plays with the fire and passion that win hearts all around, not just from classical audiences, and he has technique to burn too – if you couldn’t see the stage during his cadenzas (the flashy improvisations concerto soloists typically get to indulge in before the orchestra finishes off a movement), you might have thought there were two of him up there. At the same time, he never let technique hold him back – more than once he charged up a scale so fast his intonation veered off slightly, like a high-wire artist amping up drama by pretending the wire is slippery. We never really know whether it’s pretending or not, but we don’t look – or listen – away for a moment, and that’s what we come for.
That kind of excitement was needed in this early Haydn work, written in the 1760s during the first few years of what would become lifelong service to the illustrious Esterházy family of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Haydn wisely sought advice from the family’s resident cellist, the young Josef Franz Weigl, who seems, naturally enough, to have encouraged the composer to create a dramatic and showy solo part. In Gerhardt’s hands, it carried a work which, though well crafted as we expect from Haydn, shows little of the colorful and fanciful musical personality that would become a trademark of his mature years.
Why might the draw have been mostly Mahler? Classical music hardly knows a more colorful or fanciful musical personality. A few years after he finished his fifth symphony in 1902, he famously said to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, “A symphony must be like the world. It must encompass everything.” Audiences of the time, just over a century ago, were bewildered by these epic creations, crafted with such love both for the endless sonic possibilities of a large orchestra and the world of experience that inspired him to explore them. This symphony lasts well over an hour; several stretch nearly an hour and a half. But audiences in our own time take such lengths in stride, in no small part because of famed New York Philharmonic director Leonard Bernstein’s tireless advocacy and colorful interpretations during the latter part of the 20th century. With seemingly endless variety of sound and mood, and fistfuls of dramatic contrasts, they are nothing less than classical music’s cinematic blockbusters.
Adding to the cinematic nature of this particular symphony, the narrative is a classic one, starting in defeat and depression, then working through rage and despair back to engagement with the wider world, resulting ultimately in love and celebration of life. And it’s love with movie trimmings: not only was the quiet, slow Adagietto movement, the fourth of five, written as a love letter to the woman who would eventually become Mahler’s wife, but movie buffs and folks of a certain age also know it better as the source of the theme music for Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice.
Exploiting sonic possibilities inevitably leads to challenges for musicians, and a fine performance of a Mahler symphony is a monster achievement for a symphony orchestra. Kalmar made them a priority from his first season, and though I was skeptical at first, based on valiant but flawed previous OSO attempts, he shortly had the band turning out well-focused, emotionally compelling renditions. By now they’ve done nearly all the symphonies and they’re beginning to be old hands at it. This performance sounded like they were even able to relax and enjoy themselves, though that may well have been an artfully constructed illusion.
Certainly it’s hard to imagine that principal trumpet Jeffrey Work and principal horn John Cox had much opportunity to relax in the days before performing their marathon parts. For example, the entire musical saga opens with a long trumpet solo, among the most challenging in the repertory, completely unaccompanied by any other sound from the many musicians massed on stage. Work delivered brilliantly, charging the first movement with electricity despite its funereal character. He let out a tiny blip a few entrances later – I think one has to, or the tension would be unbearable, like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter. Moreover, Mahler doesn’t keep to the usual fanfares, climaxes and other traditional trumpet material; he also writes real melodies, ghostly asides and more, just like parts for the winds and strings. Trumpeter Work continued flawless and expressive throughout, and the rest of the section ably followed his lead. He well deserved his solo bow at the end and the noisy ovation in response, as did Cox, who may not have had as many flashy solos but was a rock too. Principal horn in late 19th / early 20th century symphonic music is arguably the hardest job in the orchestra, possibly because composers and players both were still getting used to the virtuosity made possible by valve technology that was still new at the time.
These were the only two players Kalmar recognized for individual bows. But the rest of the band was right up there with them, with solos and flourishes too many to detail, not to mention the ever-present sensitivity to the rest of the ensemble that is essential in Mahler. There are even expressive solos for tuba, an instrument usually relegated to humorous outbursts and rhythmic emphasis, and tubist Ja’Ttik Clark shone in them. The crowd applauded boisterously, and it took an extra curtain call after the traditional three to satisfy them. A composer colleague thought the orchestra sounded even better under Kalmar’s detailed and energetic direction than the San Francisco Symphony, doing the same work under Mahler expert Michael Tilson Thomas, when he heard them a few years back. It was a concert that will leave a warm glow in my heart for a long time.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He’s been crazy for the music of Mahler ever since he was 13, when he first heard a Bernstein / NY Philharmonic recording of the 9th Symphony.
Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!