Santa Cruz Symphony — Mahler & Grieg

Daniel_Stewart January 23 2015

Music Director Daniel Stewart (photo by Dario Acosta)

On Sunday, January 23 at the Mello Center, the Santa Cruz Symphony, under the direction of Maestro Daniel Stewart, performed the Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46 (1888), by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) and the much anticipated Symphony No. 1 in D Major (1888) by Gustav Mahler (1860-1907).

Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite is incidental music based on Henrik Ibsen’s play bearing the same name. The World premiere took place in Norway in 1876. Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is an extensive work based on a Norwegian Fairy tale. Grieg found Ibsen’s work to be overwhelming due to its length and decided to compose two suites that he considered would work better together compositionally, rather than follow Ibsen’s play. The four musical sections are Morning: allegretto pastoral; The Death of Ase: andante dolorso; Anitra’s Dance: tempo di mazurka and In the Hall of the Mountain King: alla marcia e molto marcato. Indeed captured the essence of “Program Music” in its finest form. The strings played a huge role in capturing the beginning of day in the beautiful mountains and forests of Norway. The seductive dance in Anitra’s dance evoked the gracefulness of Anitra, with whom Peer Gynt is infatuated. In the Hall of the Mountain King is the exceptionally popular piece considered to be Grieg’s most well known. The melody depicts the bizarre dances of gnomes and accelerated with each repetition with performed with high energy by the orchestra. Flutist Laurie Camphouse, Bassoonist Amy Duxbury and percussionist Norman Peck (triangle) added perfect details to this exceptional performance.

Mahler’s quote “My time will come” has probably become the most famous attributed to him. His time arrived with his first symphony and continued with eight more in particular along with his sublime Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) (1901-04), and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) (1884-85). These works are monumental! Mahler’s voluptuously beautiful Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony was used in Luchino Visconti’s popular Italian-French film “Death in Venice” (1971), a work that served to introduce his music to an audience who may have never experienced music presented in a concert hall.

From Mahler’s beginning, he was widely known as an excellent conductor who just happened to compose. The exact opposite was thought of the composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (1958 – present) whose work NYX (2011) will be performed by the Santa Cruz Symphony on May 8. Salonen was considered a composer who just happened to conduct.

Mahler chose the title “Titan” referring to Jean Paul’s great novel with the same name. “Titan” was permanently removed after the symphony’s third performance in Weimar. Interesting that the first three performances of the symphony were presented as “Program music,” a term first introduced by Franz Liszt to describe music that tells a story, illustrates literary ideas or evokes pastoral scenes. Beethoven’s Symphony 6 falls into such a category. The World Premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 took place on Wednesday, November 20, 1889, in Budapest with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra in the Vigado Concert hall. Mahler, not quite 30 years old, conducted the work.

The score of Mahler’s first symphony is marked “Wie ein Naturlaut” ( Like a sound of nature). The opening movement weaves the imagination and narrative of the symphonic poem in a way that changed the genre forever. The movement is designated Langsam schleppend, immer sehr gemächlich (slowly dragging, always very restrained) and is not based on a theme or a rhythm, but on the timpanist John Weeks gentle, but relentless D and A, immediately followed by the contra basses on low “A” that developed into a seven-octave shimmer of sound texture with the strings encompassing the entire orchestral range. Under the meticulous scrutiny of Maestro Stewart, the opening measures were performed with admirable balance. The quietness and stasis was a moment of sound in which events became equal yet opposing that in hearing brought this symphonic model into a new dimension. Above the low A drone by the contra basses, the pastoral “nature” theme slowly developed with cuckoo cries by the flutes, a bit later by the clarinets.

The “nature” theme was interrupted by a fanfare “awakening call” skillfully performed by the clarinets and later by three muted “offstage” trumpets, indicated in the score as “In sehr weiter Entfernung aufgestellt” (“At a very far distance”). As the movement continued, the orchestra introduced a rural folk dance of the time and popular tunes for which Mahler would become notorious. Of special note were the many fanfares performed by the eight horns, trumpets and winds that were all spot on with crisp, in-tune entrances and impressive dynamics that filled the Mello Center.

Above the paced, penetrating beat of the timpani on notes D-A in the opening of the third movement, the quite-strange funeral march in the minor-key version of the well-known children’s round Frère Jacques made its entry. The musical idea skilfully switched from one extreme to another without giving the impression of a break. Bohemian street bands, Klezmer inflections, at times happy and sometimes creating an effective, eerie and brooding mood.

The final movement is the most involved and expansive. It brought back several elements from the first movements by tying the beginning with the end in what many scholars analyzed as an Aristotelian dramatic structure. The fourth movement continued directly from the third without pause and opened with an abrupt cymbal crash immediately followed by a dissonant chord produced by the woodwinds, brass and string sections and amplified by the bass drum all in succession. The tremendous contrast between the end of the third movement and fourth demonstrated Mahler’s ingenuity and compositional prowess. In a letter from Mahler to Bernhard Schutter in 1901, Mahler described the opening as “The sudden outburst…of despair of a deeply wounded and broken heart” and effectively realized by the orchestra. Sincere accolades to the many soloists who performed with artistry from the brass (Susan Vollmer), the entire wind section (Karen Sremac, Bennie Cottone), string and percussion (John Weeks, Norman Peck) sections under the Maestro’s direction. The audience response was simply overwhelming and the quiet murmmer of  “Mahler’s Fifth,” Mahler’s Fifth struck a wishful note! In classic gesture, Maestro Stewart demonstrated his approval by personally congratulating the entire orchestra. A most enjoyable first class performance!


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