ArtsWatch guest review: A labyrinth of puzzles

Portland composer Jeff Winslow reviews a milestone Oregon Symphony concert

Carlos Kalmar led the Oregon Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony #6.

Portland composer Jeff Winslow reviews a milestone Oregon Symphony concert
by Jeff Winslow

Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony, more than most masterworks, is a labyrinth of puzzles intellectual, historical, and emotional. The composer himself said it presented problems that would only by solved by those who thoroughly understood his first five massive symphonies, and he was not a boastful man. Here are some puzzles many have pondered, mixed with others that occurred to me while hearing Carlos Kalmar direct the Oregon Symphony’s enthusiastic performance Sunday evening.

  • Why does a composer write 80 minutes of tumultuous music ending with a shattering vision of doom at what should be the happiest time of his life?
  • What are we to make of the wild mood swings in the huge and convoluted outer movements? One minute the stormtroopers are bearing down on us, then after grooving to a psychedelic chorale, we become the most ardent of lovers, though perhaps given to a touch of S & M. And that’s just for starters!
  • Why did Mahler instruct the orchestra to repeat this opening sequence, at a time in history when performances of even Beethoven symphonies dispensed with such repeats? Why did Kalmar choose to ignore his instructions?
  • Why are three of the four movements in the same key, when variety and inventiveness in key progression was a hallmark of the times and of Mahler’s music in particular? (Granted, there’s plenty of variety within the movements, and the odd one out is as far distant as can be.)
  • Why did he introduce a dramatic new percussion instrument, a gargantuan hammer, only to use it but twice after contemplating using it as many as five times?
  • Why on earth did he have so much trouble choosing the order of the inner movements — a schizoid scherzo and a love song shot through with intense brooding? Is there anything about those outer movements that can guide our understanding here? Granted, Mahler didn’t have nearly as much trouble choosing as history has since. He publicly changed his mind only once, risking (and receiving) considerable ridicule. Since then, the world’s top conductors have come down on both sides of the question.
  • Finally, as you’re delighting in this vast symphonic onslaught washing over you, do you need to care about any of these questions?

Of course not. But of all Mahler’s symphonies, this one seems the most about obsession, so I think I might be forgiven for catching the mood. Surely obsession explains how such a long, dark work nearly filled the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. What else could drive the parents of a family of four with two small children to buy tickets for seats just behind me? What were they thinking? The kids were about as well behaved (thanks to considerable judicious effort by the parents) as one could possibly expect, and I’m sure they left no artifacts in the live recording made for Portland’s classical radio station. But their occasional bumps, wriggles and vocalizations couldn’t help but distract nearby listeners. Maybe it was this distraction that caused my mind to wander into the labyrinth of puzzles. Fortunately after a few last sporadic bumps near the beginning of the finale, the kids apparently fell asleep.

Out of Order?

So – does a love song belong before or after a scherzo that can’t make up its mind whether to beat you senseless or toddle clumsily about? Consider the spaces between. The first movement ends with a jubilant flourish. The scherzo starts banging away in virtually the same key, which seems a bit much, and fades away despondently with three funereal drumbeats – on the same interval that trudges away in the bass of Chopin’s folkloric funeral march. The love song starts up almost as a soft continuation, yet floating in disorienting harmonic territory. In its afterglow the finale erupts violently with a wrenching progression you won’t find in any harmony textbook, even today. Yet in the bass we find… the very same pitches that ended the scherzo thirteen minutes earlier. It doesn’t quite jell somehow.
If the order is reversed? The strangely floating love song contrasts meltingly with the jubilant flourish, the scherzo cruelly breaks in on the afterglow, and the fading drumbeats suddenly rear up, leaping frighteningly to life like a golem about to be set loose upon us all. It worked for me. It could have, at least. But Maestro Kalmar chose to have the orchestra tune just before the finale, breaking the spell. That had to be a tough call. The orchestra has been playing full out for nearly an hour, and has another half-hour full of complex harmony and striking orchestration to go. Good tuning is essential. And yet the moment was lost. It’s a backhanded compliment, but it speaks volumes for Kalmar and the band that I cared.

Gustav Mahler

The Oregon Symphony’s performance didn’t necessarily answer any of the perennial questions hovering over Mahler’s Sixth, nor did my own obsessions overshadow its committed performance. The band was on its best behavior, and that’s saying something these days. The huge horn section must have practiced its intricate and demanding parts obsessively, for I noticed only one slight misstep the entire evening. Of all the recordings I’ve heard, I don’t think I’ve ever heard portamento (an expressive technique much favored by Mahler in which instruments “slide” between two pitches rather than playing them discretely) executed with such gusto, even from instruments not normally asked to deliver it. Woodwinds were frequently directed to play pointing straight at the audience rather than down at the floor as usual, and they well deserved the extra exposure.

But aside from such details, it was a delight to hear such a massive orchestra apparently turning on a dime, following Kalmar’s every whim. Such “easy” expressivity came to the fore mostly in the scherzo and the finale. In the tender, slow love song, I must admit I felt a certain dullness. It’s true the movement lacks the scherzo’s detailed tempo indications, but surely a love song requires many a considerate inflection whether marked or not, and beyond that, even here there is an obsessive palindromic hook which recurs in different guises. Maybe I was just taken out of the moment by the activity in the seats behind me, but the sameness in the executions of this hook got a little annoying after awhile. I hope the next time out they have a chance to settle in and play with it.
Still, the overall excellence of the performance was a milestone for the Oregon Symphony. They and Kalmar deserved every one of the many enthusiastic ovations. I even heard a fellow a few seats to my right, who had been in rapt attention all evening, say he wanted to hear it all over again! And why not? The kids were safely asleep. But I wanted to warn him: you’ll still be obsessed, and the puzzles will remain unsolved.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist who has a long history with the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.  He was barely into his teen years when his older brothers turned him on to them.  It was a life changing experience – he’s a composer today largely because of it.

4 Responses.

  1. We did take the exposition repeat on Saturday night, but when we arrived for the Sunday performance, there were notes on the stand from Carlos instructing that the repeat not be observed for Sunday and Monday’s performances. No reason was given for the change.

  2. bob priest says:

    one of my graphic design amigos went to hear this concert – his first “live” mahler experience. his only comment to me when i asked him for his impressions was; “boy, mahler certainly could’ve used an editor.”

    • Jeff Winslow says:

      Talk about taking the plunge!

      It may seem odd, but I haven’t heard many comments like that about Mahler despite the length of his symphonies, where with Wagner’s operas it’s almost proverbial. I wonder if there’s something about the leitmotif technique that triggers such reactions, vs. Mahler’s more organic, “whole world” approach.

  3. bob priest says:

    yeah, a “mahler virgin” should be very careful! :)))

    as for OVERKILL taking of “the plunge,” well, nothing quite matches the time i went to hear “gotterdammerung” @ covent garden:

    + sept 1971 (i was 20)
    + i got a “standing seat”
    + it was the first opera i ever attended

    now, i ask you, what do you imagine my response was to this eine kleine musik-abend? yep, you got it. i was turned off to nearly ALL opera for over 10 years & couldn’t bear the thought of subjecting myself to another wagner soirree for 15+ years.

    now, i’m a HUGE wagner fan! heck, didn’t i learn anything in this life?


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