ASO tackles “Mahler’s Titan”

By Philippa Kiraly

In the 15 seasons since its inception, the Auburn Symphony Orchestra has been steadily nurtured and an audience built by conductor Stewart Kershaw, general manager Lee Valenta, a devoted board and a supportive city, and one might consider last weekend’s final performances of this season as a watershed.

For the first time, the orchestra performed Mahler, in fact an entire Mahler program, with
the rarely-played extra movement, “Blumine,” of the Symphony No. 1, the “Songs of a Wayfarer,” and finally, the First Symphony itself, the “Titan.”

It is indeed a titan, for both orchestra and listeners, coming in at 55 minutes and jammed full of musical ideas, musical pictures and descriptions, and a chance for just about eveyone in the orchestra to shine. It’s also unlike any symphony that came before, and the original Budapest audience in 1889 was quite unprepared for this and reacted to it with considerable dislike.

Maybe Kershaw was being mindful of this, by preparing the audience with a preconcert discussion with orchestra cellist and KUOW host Dave Beck, and by the way he built the program.

Mahler composed all the works on the program in his 20s, and during those years developed his idiosyncratic, highly individual voice.

“Blumine,” originally planned as the second movement of the symphony and lost for 70 years after he discarded it, is a quiet gem just eight minutes long, so descriptive it could well be used for a pastoral movie, but it also has an astonishing high solo trumpet role, ably played here by George Oram.

The soloist in the four “Songs of a Wayfarer” was New York City Opera baritone Victor Benedetti, who happens to be from Auburn. Mahler wrote the texts as well as the music for these largely autobiographical songs, portraying the agonies of love and effort to find peace of mind which bedevil many youths on their paths to maturity.

They need a voice with very wide range, and this Benedetti accomplished with ease, his highest notes sounding as comfortable as the lowest and his phrasing full of expression. His voice is dark, and though in the first two songs, I might have preferred a somewhat brighter sound, it was perfect for the stormy third one and the resolution of the fourth. Because it’s a big voice, he had no trouble being heard over the orchestra, which has its own major role.

The result was gorgeous, as the “Blumine” had also been, and by the early intermission the audience and orchestra were well prepared for the big symphony, helped further by the melodies in “Wayfarer” which Mahler borrowed for the symphony.

This was a triumph. Kerkshaw has strong players in every part of this orchestra (as anyone who heard its memorable performance of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony at Benaroya a few years ago will remember), and in Mahler, all of them come into prominence.

Their playing was as well integrated and smooth as a Rolls Royce engine, but it’s not surprising the Budapest audience was bewildered. The symphony’s opening is arrestingly individual with quiet octaves steadily continuing, punctuated with bird calls, and it goes on from there to vivid descriptions, always changing, never boring, even fun, like the galumphing feet of peasants in the second movement dance, or a bit ominous, like the gloom of the unexpected canon of “Frere Jacques” in a minor key in the third.
As a rule, we hear Mahler symphonies in a large concert hall. It was enlightening to hear this in a small venue, where one could see as well as hear the players. I have been hearing Mahler symphonies for many decades, yet had never seen or known that Mahler indicates that at times the clarinets, oboes and horns should lift their instruments up and play as though they were playing bugles.

In a smaller hall, there is also no need to play at triple forte to make a point. Kershaw brought out the louder sections with plenty of sound and fury, but did so in a way that allowed the music to bloom, never sounding frenetic or steely. Nor was it of a decibel level to make the audience cringe. Indeed, the whole performance bloomed, suitably appropriate for a work much of which celebrates nature with exquisite music.

It can be hard to give such a large work the overarching shape it needs to hold it all together, while keeping every detail clear, the musical colors in play, and all of it imbued with passionate emotion. This Kershaw did. From the audience reaction after, both on Saturday night as I heard, and to my own ears on Sunday afternoon, the audience and orchestra are more than ready for Mahler, especially in a performance such as this.

Special kudos to timpanist Phillip Hanson, who makes his drums sing.

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