The Orchestra Project’s momentous Mahler 3

by | Apr 1, 2024 | Ambassador thoughts, Orchestras

The Orchestra Project | MAHLER 3

Easter Sunday, March 31, 2024, Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney, NSW

I doubt if Gustav Mahler knew of P.T Barnum but he certainly followed his maxims. Don’t put on a conventional concert with a four movement symphony followed by two song cycles after the interval, instead stage a six-movement symphony incorporating both – being, to this day, the longest single work in the repertoire and scored for a 120 strong orchestra, two choirs and a soloist. If one wanted to research his need for recognition, one could cite his humble origins, his conflicts with orchestral managers and his friendships with renowned extroverts Richard Wagner and Hans Von Bulow – whatever he had in mind, his showmanship has resulted in a magnificent composition which holds the audience’s attention despite its length.

He gave each movement a title and although he subsequently deleted them as was his wont, they remain as an aid to our interpretation.

The first movement had the title, “Pan awakes – Summer marches in”. Being thirty minutes long, it’s often played as Part 1 followed by a short interval. The principal theme is rhythmically identical to that of the main theme of the final movement of Brahms’ first symphony – at first the tune is very similar but on each repeat (they are in double figures) the tune becomes more remote. Although never admitting this, it’s quite impossible that the composer was not aware of this – he would have heard the work written twenty years earlier and he was a very firm friend of Brahms who had helped him considerably in his career as an Opera Theatre conductor. It’s fascinating that this theme at first hearing was thought to be influenced by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and Brahms acknowledged this. Mahler to Beethoven’s Ninth – two degrees of separation! After the motif, brass and percussion take over later joined by the woodwinds with their Mahlerian trills. There are frequent changes in time signature but march rhythms predominate.

The second movement programmed as “What the flowers in the meadows tell me”, a minuet, is quietly stated first by the oboe but dramatic episodes intervene – it takes its origin from a separate work “Blumenstuck” or “flower-piece”.

Then follows a Scherzo, “What the animals in the forest tell me” which is high-spirited and features an offstage posthorn playing actual passages from mail coaches. It also features a solo for all eight double basses – the longest since Dittersdorf wrote a concerto for the instrument! Again material is used from a song – on this occasion from “Das Knaben Wunderhorn” (A Boy’s Magic Horn) used so often by the composer.

The alto soloist Lucinda-Marikata Deacon joined for the fourth movement “What Man tells me”,  whose text “Midnight Song“ is taken from Nietzshe’s Also Spracht Zarathustra, “Oh Man – take heed!”. Lucinda is Sydney trained and has sung numerous operatic roles both here and in the UK. Her quiet but assertive voice was well-suited to this medium with its sense of foreboding.

In the lighter fifth movement, “What the Angels tell me”, Lucinda was joined by both the Women’s Chorus and the Children’s Choir each sixteen strong. In another extract from “The Magic Horn” as well as original texts by the composer.

Only Mahler could have written a conspicuously slow movement for the Finale, ”What love tells me”, but he stated that it represented ‘Quiet and Resolution’ – certainly welcome after the excesses of the preceding episodes. Even so, drama and loudness reappear near the end while so does the original Brahms theme.

The Orchestra Project was introduced by conductor Fabian Russell in 2002 as a medium to further the development of young musicians. They certainly rose to the momentous occasion and clearly enjoyed themselves as much as the audience. I hope I don’t have to wait too long before hearing this Symphony again. To really appreciate it, one has to hear it live.

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About The Author

Tony Burke

Born 1945 Shropshire UK and started piano lessons at 12. Having played classical piano since then up to a reasonable amateur recital level. Studied medicine at Brasenose College Oxford and Barts Hospital London. Moved to Australia in 1975 and settled in Sydney. Moved to Woy Woy in 1984 where I opened my own GP practice. Retiring in 2013 and living in Macmasters Beach, playing bridge and tennis when I'm not listening to classical music or tickling the ivories.

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