There’s more to Mahler than meets the ear. At least that’s what they say today.
A century ago, Gustav Mahler stood as one of the world’s most famous conductors — with what many considered to be a side interest in composition. Today, Mahler’s fame as a conductor in Vienna and New York is merely historic sidebar. These days it’s all about his music — and the deep philosophical messages encoded within.
This week former Louisville Orchestra conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith, now the music director of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, returns to conduct his former ensemble in concerts Thursday and Friday in Whitney Hall, with Mahler’s huge “First Symphony” headlining the program. It’s a heckuva piece — a “big blow,” as the brass players would say, and the orchestra will be augmented to deliver the full Mahler sound.
Smith has done big Mahler before. But now the maestro can be counted among those fascinated by what Mahler’s music means. Like he’s broken the musical version of the Da Vinci Code that reveals the Hidden Mahler within.
“Of course, I can’t say everything that Mahler is saying, because I’m not Mahler. But it’s in there,” Smith said. “How much is read into it?” He added, “There are enough clues that he left that we aren’t making this stuff up. It’s the darndest concoction you’ve ever heard.”
Of course, just exactly what is revealed, and what it amounts to — if anything — is open to debate. But Smith is not alone in believing that there is something “in there” in Mahler’s music.
“I never got this far into it before,” Smith said with a chuckle. “Didn’t have the time. And maybe that’s better, because my wife thinks I’m totally over the edge. When I get to Louisville, they’ll say, ‘Gosh, Smith. He’s lost it.’”
Which is not unheard of in conductors.
Mahler (1860-1911), himself, was nervous, thin, neurotic and always complaining. He was married to a social beauty 20 years his junior, and his married life was rocky.
He once consulted Sigmund Freud.
“I analyzed Mahler for an afternoon (in 1910) in Leyden,” Freud recalled. “If I may believe reports, I achieved much with him at that time. The visit appeared necessary for him because his wife at that time rebelled against the fact he withdrew his libido from her. In a highly interesting expedition through his life history, we discovered his personal condition for love, especially his Holy Mary complex.”
What that is, we’re not sure. Perhaps Mahler developed his Holy Mary complex when he converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism — to get the conductor’s job with the Vienna Opera. “Don’t worry,” he told a friend. “I’ve only changed my coat.”
Mahler ruled the world from his podium.
“Musicians respected him but hated to play under his baton,” music historian Harold C. Schonberg once said. “He was the kind of conductor who would start a rehearsal of the Lohengrin Prelude and yell at the players, before a note was sounded, ‘Too loud!’”
Mahler left instructions in his scores that also seemed intended for audiences — and perhaps future scholars.
Mahler explained that “in the beginning when my style is still foreign to hear, the listener be provided with a few signposts and milestones along the journey, or shall we say a map of the stars to comprehend the night sky with its shining worlds.”
Such imagery shines in the “Mahler First.” The opening notes sound like a shimmering shower of sparks cascading from bursting fireworks. It has the feel of a dramatic movie score — as “Also Sprach Zarathrustra,” by Richard Strauss (Mahler’s contemporary), sets the tone for “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
In the second movement the mood turns somber. Mahler borrows the Frère Jacques canon, with a solo bass and a single drum in funeral march. In contrast, the third movement swirls in Viennese waltz.
The triumphant finale is hallmarked by parts for seven French horns, with an assistant to the first horn to make eight. Near the end, Mahler commands the horn players to “Aufstehen!” (“Stand up!”). They stand to the end, with bells turned up to project their sound.
“It’s a big blow,” said Louisville Orchestra horn player Dennis Hallman, who once played the “Mahler First” with the Mexico City Orchestra. “The altitude is 7,500 feet in Mexico City, and it’s a test to get to the end with something left. I remember bracing myself against my chair to keep going.”
Also on the program, the orchestra will zip along through Adam’s “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” and soloist Karen Gomyo performs Barber’s “Violin Concerto, Op.14.”