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Mighty Mahler

JEFFREY JOHNSON

October 04, 2009

One hundred years ago, Gustav Mahler spent the summer of 1909 writing, with astonishing speed, his ninth symphony, a work that lasts almost 90 minutes. He never lived to hear it performed.

At its premiere, Mahler's Symphony No. 9 in D Major fascinated audiences with a perplexing webwork of ideas. Early reviewers wrote that it evoked ideas of "evening sun ... of anxious and sweet rapture." The work remains a milestone; it caught the energy of a changing and restless time. It speaks to us today of transcending limitation. It remains a challenging emotional and physical endeavor.

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra will perform Mahler's ninth Thursday through Sunday in the Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. The work has not been performed by the HSO since 1983. It is a supreme challenge for everyone involved, requiring much of a conductor and of the performers.

"It's been on my brain since the end of the Beethoven cycle," says Hartford Symphony's conductor and music director Edward Cumming. "I have been waking up and going to sleep with this music in my head all the time."

Cumming described his obsession with the symphony as "a labor of love." He said that his "whole summer has been devoted to this piece."

For classical music lovers, this is a rare opportunity to hear a huge Mahlerian orchestra in a smaller acoustic space, which not only will allow all details to be heard but also will allow the extreme dynamic contrasts in the symphony to be accurately felt and appreciated.

"The first movement of Mahler's ninth symphony is one of the most perfect pieces of music," Cumming says. "If he had ended it right there, it could have been a single-movement symphony. ... There are bits of allegro, slow sections. ... It is just a perfect piece."

Cumming says that movement is the greatest 30 minutes of music by Mahler. He reflected a moment: "And yet, after that, you have to go on." Leonard Bernstein had a significant role in the Mahler revival of the 1960s. During a Young People's concert on Feb. 7, 1960, on the 100th anniversary year of Mahler's birth, Bernstein described the centrality of polarities in Mahler. Within every different aspect of his musical life, Bernstein perceived within Mahler the intensity of "two different men locked up in the same body."

There is a fascinating film available from Kultur Video called "Four Ways To Say Farewell: Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony, a personal introduction by Leonard Bernstein." (It's available on YouTube.) It is an hour of footage of Bernstein rehearsing the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with additional commentary by Bernstein about Mahler and about this symphony in particular. Developing ideas from earlier writers and conductors such as Bruno Walter, Bernstein believed that each movement of the symphony said goodbye to a different aspect of life, that the work articulates "reminiscence and nostalgia."

Cumming, while respectful of the Bernstein-Mahler legacy, espouses a different interpretation more in line with that of Simon Rattle. "There is so much written about the piece that is just not true," Cumming says. "I don't see it as a death knell; the ending of the sixth symphony is just terrifying."

Is the ninth an acceptance of death? "He had so many plans for concerts the next season," Cumming says of Mahler, "and was working on another symphony."

Cumming refers to Mahler's 10th symphony, which was incomplete at the time of his death. "I see [the ninth] symphony as Mahler's 'Messiah'; he wrote it more quickly than the others."

Cumming refers to the speed with which Handel wrote his more enduring work: "His future plans were not the plans of a man who thinks he will be dying in the next 18 months."

The second movement is a Lšndler; a country dance. The third movement is called "Rondo-Burleske." The final movement is the famous adagio.

Most conductors want to separate the obviously spiritual music of the finale from the madness of the third movement. Not Cumming.

"The first motive of the adagio does come out of the third movement," he says. "But it is significantly slower, so that the connection is barely recognizable."The music itself is about as complicated as it gets. "I haven't done anything more difficult," Cumming says. "One can spend a whole day [studying] just a few measures."

When the four Mahler concerts are completed, "I am going to miss it," Cumming says. "That Sunday evening, I am going to go into severe withdrawal because the last half-year of my life has been completely devoted to this piece. It is going to be really hard to say goodbye."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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