Santa Cruz Symphony: Catharsis


Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) composed his Fifth Symphony in 1901-02 and conducted the first performance in Cologne on October 18, 1904. This symphony has presented us with the musical equivalent of a split personality, the same personality that in many ways reflected Mahler’s life. A musical composition of such polar opposites presented side by side: tragedy and joy, depression and mania, pain and pleasure, despair and hope, and more. In his Fifth Symphony Mahler composed these opposing attitudes and held them together using a tripartite structure that lays out an interesting formal course beginning with despair advancing towards ultimate joy. But as with his personal life, not without trials and tribulations. This challenge is by no means an easy undertaking for any conductor to render a masterful performance. 

Mahler employed 5 movements in Symphony 5. The first two movements form Part I, the last two Part III. The third movement forms Part II by itself and it’s in this movement, a lengthy Scherzo lasting up to twenty minutes, one hears the opposing forces all appear to meet and become transformed rather than resolved (resolution must wait) into what Mahler thought of as a portrait of a man of the world. So this third movement/Part II is the hub of a revolving musical wheel whose perimeter is the four movements making up Parts I and III and from whose revolutions fly off the opposing ideas Mahler uses as his material with the two parts on either side. 

The trumpet solo announced the start of the first movement and was impressive throughout the work. It was a drastic funeral march (Trauermarsch), an elegy infused with surrealistic darkness and one incredible outburst of anguish. Stewart’s direction exuded profound integrity and commitment, shaped by a deeply felt inevitability. The orchestra soon enveloped the trumpet and the violins entered introducing the main melody of the movement. Stewart controlled the descending melodic motion and further created the appropriate atmosphere for a funeral procession. Mahler’s decision to highlight the string section evoked here suggested a nineteenth-century dance. 

Despite the lyricism briefly elicited by a violin passage reminiscent of the first song in Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, the ironic tone of stopped horns, as well as gestures associated with the trumpet signal, reinstated the bleak mood that began the movement. 

The second movement took on the role of both a companion to and a commentary on the first movement and important details continued to create the necessary texture Mahler wanted and Maestro Stewart provided. To the point, the Tam-tam consistently and effectively created both intensity and subtle, delicate color. The double bass, tuba and timpani punctuations added to these textures throughout. Stewart brought out its predominately angry and savage musical quality, with periodic lapses into the quieter, despairing music most effectively. There was one unanticipated moment, so characteristic of Mahler, when all the grief and anger leads into a moment of excitable frivolity, a momentary indiscretion, like loud laughter in the middle of a somber sermon. The music quickly regained its composure, but seemed even more disturbed. At the close, the trumpets and trombones began a well performed noble brass chorale, brave and affirmative. For a moment it soared and then, suddenly, almost inexplicably, it faded. The double bass section was excellent in their diminuendo, decrescendo ending. Stewart was well aware of Mahler’s intention of combining different moods and emotions rather than expressing single musical ideas in individual movements. At times they were juxtaposed in sequence with classical panache. 

Before the Premiere in 1904, Mahler spoke of his 5th Symphony and said “The Scherzo is a damnable movement. It will have a long history of suffering! Conductors will take it too fast for fifty years, and audiences – Oh heavens – what sort of faces will they pull at this chaos…..” Maestro Mahler would certainly have agreed with Stewart’s guidance through the rondo-like ABABA arch pattern designated Kräftig, nicht zu schnell (Strongly, not too fast). The orchestra took the opening tempo of the Scherzo in a comfortable “tempo di valse” and it sounded great at that tempo. Mahler was obsessed with directions concerning the tempo. Just a few bars into the movement- Nicht eilen (“unhurried”!), at the next tempo marking Nicht eilen, again!! Bar 108 – Nicht eilen, again!!! It’s not until 120 bars into the piece that Mahler instructs the orchestra to move on “Wieder fliessender” or “again more flowing.” Throughout the labyrinth of designations of the Scherzo, Stewart observed and wove with precision the orchestral sound of the many twists and turns as zart (tender), ruhig (calm), and even the pizzicati – Fliessender, aber immer gemäsigt (flowing, but always moderate) as if it were a tapestry.  

After the opening, the playful Ländler or waltz was delicately tossed between a superb solo French horn, the woodwinds, and the first violins. After three varied statements of this melody, the orchestra challenged Mahler’s manipulation of its basic components: modified pitches, shifts of the theme into minor keys, and the darkened timbre, though at times Stewart allowed the original lightness of the melody to reemerge tastefully. Ultimately, however, a solo French horn sounded a darker fragment of the tune to signal impending change.

A clear waltz provided a temporary relaxation of tempo. Nonetheless trumpets and solo French horn brought back the scherzo’s sprightly melody. Unlike the waltz, once again the prominent, unaccompanied French horn performed incredibly well. The rondo-finale was well planned, starting off with gracious playfulness (again, as instructed by Mahler), and finished off with a virtuosic display from the orchestra.

The famous Adagietto was impressive by the sheer control of the orchestral string players in hushed pianissimos, with very little to almost no vibrato. One of the characteristics of this group that sets it apart from neighboring orchestras, is its sharp, lean quality they get from their instruments led by Concertmaster Nigel Armstrong. It’s a sound which has become a part of the orchestra’s identity. This Adagietto was a sincere, direct performance and in no way lacking in effectiveness. When they delved into the lower registers, Stewart made sure they brought their all, as if they preserved their power for this moment. 

This well known and loved Adagietto fits into a special genre along with (chronologically) Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin, Act 1 (1850), 10’ duration; Mahler’s Adagietto (1902), 12’ duration and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936), duration 9”. All three compositions have left an indelible mark, etched in the back of the listener’s cranium!   

The Adagietto served as a love letter from the composer to Alma Schindler, probably shortly before they were married in 1902. The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, in his personal copy of the Fifth Symphony, wrote: “This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love for Alma! Instead of a letter, he sent her this in manuscript form; no other words accompanied it. She understood and wrote to him: He should come!!! (both of them told me this!).” Mengelberg’s own description of the Adagietto was “love, a love comes into his life.”By using the Adagietto as a love letter, Mahler clearly pointed to the mood he wanted. And this, it would seem, determined his choice of tempo, a song without words. Maestro Stewart set the perfect limit on how slowly his orchestra could perform without distorting its character. Even the slightest gradations of timbre and dynamic were observed throughout, allied to Mahler’s broad palette of orchestral color. Sixteen measures from the close of designated Noch langsamer, (even more slowly) harpist Jieyin Wu, became the major protagonist with measures of delicately performed glissandi. In the ninth measure from the end Mahler ended the harpist’s role with an upward F Major strum designated viel Ton (a lot of tone). To heighten and emphasize Mahler’s intention Maestro Stewart directed Ms. Wu to convert the strum into a most effective, elongated F Major arpeggio accenting the top note “A” of the arpeggio while the accented first violins descended creating a magical moment not to be forgotten! The result: Maestro Stewart and his orchestra elevated this interpretation to impressive, original artistic heights!

All the splendor of the full orchestra was on display in the Finale. The polished power of the big brass chorale was something to behold. The musicians performed its driving conclusion with spontaneity and thrilling precision. The Mello was filled with cheers and applause, and the audience was on their feet for the second time. A round of congratulations and appreciation by Stewart showed his charisma, satisfaction and gratitude for a wonderful musical experience. Which Mahler Symphony is next? BRAVO Maestro and Orchestra!


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