Symphoria 2016-17 Season: Booklet III: MASTERWORKS VIII
May 13, 2017
The Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is widely known as “the Titan”—although against the composer’s wishes. The work was originally composed in 1888, but Mahler revised it several times, at one point adding the subtitle “Titan,” perhaps after a novel by the once-popular Jean Paul (1763-1825). He abandoned the nickname, but it stuck with audiences, not because of the literary link, but because the symphony, in so many ways, matches our conception of the titanic. Except for Bruckner, no canonical composer had written a longer symphony by that time—and not even Bruckner had asked for as large an orchestra as Mahler’s First does in its final version. (Indeed, tonight we’ll have more players on stage than at any time in Symphoria’s history.) And the climaxes are truly titanic. The first movement, for instance, ends with a blast of energy. More dramatic still is the high-intensity finale, which builds from a cry of anguish (modeled on the opening of the finale of the Beethoven Ninth) to one of the most stupendous conclusions in the repertoire. The sense of breathless excitement is heightened, as conductor Larry Loh points out, by Mahler’s use of of luftpausen (breath-marks), where “everything stops for a second and you’re just waiting for the resolution. And at the very end, the horns stand and play with their bells up—he actually asks the horns to drown out even the trumpets. How can you not have goosebumps?”
Yet while the nickname is apt, it’s also misleading, for much of this symphony is striking in a subtler way. It took half a century for Mahler to catch on, but since then, his music has become so familiar that it’s hard to recapture its disorienting effect on its early listeners. Still, if you remember that this symphony was written just a few years after the Brahms Fourth, you’ll appreciate its revolutionary spirit. The very opening sound—a gentle sustained A in shimmering string harmonics stretching seven octaves—is astonishing, and sets us up for a new kind of orchestral color. The symphony is radical in its scope, too. Mahler once told Sibelius that “a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” And while he made that claim later in his life, the First already looks in that direction, calling up the sounds of nature, distant military fanfares, popular dance idioms, children’s songs, and even Mahler’s own earlier music.
The most innovative movement is the third. It was inspired by a popular satirical drawing, “The Hunter’s Funeral,” in which, to quote the composer, “the forest animals accompany the dead hunter’s coffin to the grave.” Beginning with a muted solo double bass intoning a minor-mode version of “Frère Jacques” (“Brüder Martin” in its German equivalent), with interjections of a funeral march, a klezmer band, and recollections of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, it’s unlike anything in any symphony before that time.
The Mahler First makes such a tremendous impact that it’s not easy to come up with an appropriate opener for a concert that includes it. You can’t use something that competes with Mahler on his own terms (the audience would be too wrung out by the end)—but you don’t want something that will be forgotten in the aftermath. The aim is for something different enough in spirit to provide a real contrast, yet so striking that it will remain in your memory even after the concert. The 1939 Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is the ideal choice. It is, at least in its first two movements, as restrained as the Mahler is extreme; it’s also one of the most memorably beautiful and affecting pieces in the canon. That’s why, even though we performed it last season, many in our audience have been asking for a return.
More than most pieces, the Barber is tied to history. In fact, tonight’s soloist, Philippe Quint, points to two different historical dimensions. First, the music has a paradoxical tie to political events: it’s very much grounded in its own time, yet it speaks especially well to ours, too. “While it’s a full concerto, I feel that you have three very separate songs,” Philippe says—songs that are held together by the state of the world in the late 1930s. Barber started the piece in Switzerland, but wrote the last movement in the United States after Americans were encouraged to leave war-threatened Europe. Philippe sees the first movement as “the calm before the storm,” followed by a second of “incredible drama.” Then Barber “completely switches gears” for the finale, surprisingly short but “fiendishly difficult”—a “patriotic movement, with a hint of a simple country dance, like country fiddling.” It is, in Philippe’s words, “chaotic but optimistic. This is not your Shostakovich take on the world!” Written during turbulent times, it’s especially relevant, he says, to perform it now.
Second, the work has unusual ties to musical history, especially the history of the violin repertoire. Philippe sees, for instance, a reference to the opening of the Beethoven Violin Concerto in the “hard beats” of the percussion in the middle of the first movement; the spirit of the Bartók Second is evoked in the harmonies and rhythms as the movement ends. But most of all, he sees connections to Brahms. He reminds us that Barber began the Concerto in Switzerland, where Brahms composed much of his most important violin music—and he points to a parallel between the famous oboe solo that launches the second movement and the one that begins the middle movement of Brahms’s Violin Concerto.
Of course, musical connections are often subjective, and Philippe wonders: is this just a “crazy parallel” in his head? But first oboist Jillian Honn confirms his observation. The central movements of both concertos, she says, “open with an extensive solo by the oboe who passes the baton off to the violinist; a rhapsodic dialogue between orchestra and soloist ensues.” As Jillian mentioned last year, the Barber is one of the most rewarding pieces for an oboist—and it’s especially rewarding to play it with different violinists. “We spend hours sculpting our phrasing, vibrato, and tone colors to create the most engaging presentation of that melody that we can. Yet, when it comes to performing it in context, everything changes. Once I hear the violin soloist take over, all of my ideas become void—I am (gladly) at the mercy of their musicianship.” She experienced this process of “amending” her interpretation when she played with Sarah Crocker Vonsattel last March—and, she continues, “I am so excited to see what is in store when I have the opportunity to create a new experience with Philippe Quint.”
There’s a parallel joy in live concerts for the audience as well. As Philippe puts it, “the beautiful thing about music is that there is no right way. That’s why we go to concerts rather than just sit home and listen to our CDs. This is music-making in the moment, and it’s a priceless moment in history.”
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org