Gustav mahler

Oregon Symphony review: Mega-Mahler

Orchestra's season-ending performance of Mahler's massive third symphony matches its epic scale


Gustav Mahler was never one to shy away from a challenge. Though his music is now considered the apotheosis of German Romanticism, he started his musical career at the bottom, in 1880 taking a job directing operettas in the small Austrian spa town Bad Hall, as well-named in English as it was in German.  He steadily rose through multiple directorships to the pinnacle of the field in central Europe, the Vienna Court Opera, facing down anti-Semitism along the way. (He did have to go through the motions of converting to Catholicism in 1897 to achieve this final step.) He wrote the longest symphonies of his day, for the most massive musical forces, and had a track record of getting them performed. And not least, when past 40 he courted and married 22-year-old Alma Schindler, who as one wag has pointed out, was quite possibly the smartest and loveliest eligible young woman in Vienna at the dawn of the 20th century.

The Oregon Symphony closed its 2015-16 season with a performance of Mahler's third symphony.

The Oregon Symphony closed its 2015-16 season with a performance of Mahler’s third symphony.

In the years just prior to his Vienna achievements, Mahler wrote his longest symphony yet, his third, which the Oregon Symphony closed its season with last month. Still the longest symphony in the standard repertory, it has six movements (half again the usual number), clocks in at well over an hour and a half, and maybe unsurprisingly, shows signs of growing pains: for once, even a Mahler maven sometimes has the feeling he’s just fleshing out a plan. Of course, there’s a plan behind every one of his nine completed symphonies, but normally listeners are so entranced by what he’s cooked up next that they never notice.

The Third seems to have been a watershed for the composer. While it rarely specifically refers to either of his previous symphonies, echoes of it can be found throughout his later work, notably in his Fourth, Sixth, and Ninth Symphonies. It seems to have taken a lot of effort to write; afterwards he took a break to write his shortest symphony.

It takes a lot of effort to play, too. Mahler was a demanding conductor of other composer’s works, and he also demands a lot from the musicians who perform and the organizations that produce his own music. All the wind instrument sections in his third symphony are larger than typical symphonic repertory (at the extreme, eight horns, double the usual number), and the wise conductor adds string players to match their volume. The variety of percussion instrumentation rivals today’s orchestral works, and there is both a women’s choir and youth choir as well as an alto soloist.

Oregon Symphony director Carlos Kalmar has honed the band into a reliable Mahler machine, with memorable, even awe-inspiring performances of the more commonly performed symphonies among its accomplishments. It was high time for them to tackle the challenging Third. I caught their May 23 performance, a fittingly grand finale for the orchestra’s 2015-2016 season.


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