A titanic composition

MahlerFest takes the stage to perform composer’s epic Second Symphony

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly



Robert Olson remembers the first time he conducted Mahler’s Second Symphony.


“When you get to conduct your first Second, it’s like your first love,” he says. “You never forget it.”

Olson, artistic director and conductor of the Colorado MahlerFest, will be reunited with the Second Symphony on Saturday, May 19, and Sunday, May 20, in Macky Auditorium, conducting the unforgettable score as part of this year’s festival. The performance of Mahler’s large-scale Resurrection Symphony — calling for an orchestra of 100 musicians, plus an even larger chorus and two soloists — will be the culmination of the 2012 festival, which also includes chamber performances and a symposium.

Olson’s first experience with the Second Symphony was 23 years ago, in the festival’s second year. And he says it was the make-or-break event for the brand-new festival.

“It’s one thing to put enough people on stage for the First Symphony,” which he had conducted in the festival’s first year, he says. “The real test was going to come with the Second. I had to go from recruiting a 70-piece orchestra to about a 105-piece orchestra, plus the chorus, plus two soloists. To my surprise, I ended up having to turn orchestral musicians down. That was when I knew we had something — it was an affirmation of the festival.”

Because of the number of performers required, as well as the demands of a piece that lasts more than an hour, the Second Symphony used to be considered a challenge that only the world’s top professional orchestras could meet. Performances were few and far between, but that, Olson says, is no longer the case.

“This very month, the Jefferson Symphony, a community orchestra, is playing it the weekend before we’re playing it, and the Colorado Springs Symphony, a professional orchestra, is playing it the same weekend we’re doing it,” Olson says. “So there are three performances in two weekends.”

With such large performance forces, audiences often expect a massive sound in Mahler, but Olson is quick to dispute that impression.

“The truth of the matter is that only a small portion of Mahler’s music has that heroic movie-music sound,” he says. “Most of it’s chamber music, and that’s pretty amazing, when you have 105 people on the stage. Chamber music is always the most difficult to play, so this adds a dimension of difficulty to the music.”

The Second Symphony was written over a six-year period, 1888–94. Following immediately on the completion of the first symphony, it can be seen as an extension of that work, Olson says.

“It seems logical that the superhero born in the First Symphony, ‘The Titan,’ is now led to his grave,” Olson says. “The majority of the first movement is a funeral march, interspersed with moments of great beauty.

“I always like to tell people that the very last couple of bars is a descending chromatic scale that is a pictorial image of the coffin being lowered into the ground. And after it gets to the bottom, there’s two pizzicato strokes, ‘poom,’ and then the last one, ‘poom.’” After this emotional ending, Mahler calls for a five-minute pause before the symphony continues, but Olson declines to take that much time. “I take a longer than usual pause between the two movements, maybe three minutes,” he says. “I do NOT ask the entire audience to sit paralyzed for five minutes — it’s too exhausting.”

ON THE BILL: The 2012 Colorado Mahler Fest takes place May 18-20 at various locations in Boulder and Lafayette. For more information visit www.mahlerfest.org.

Next are two fairly traditional symphony movements that have a retrospective quality, as if looking back on the earlier life of the dead hero. The second movement is a dance in the style of the Austrian Ländler, which Olson characterizes as “a movement of innocence and nostalgia, looking back — especially after the death of our hero.” The third movement, the symphony’s slow movement, is “a grotesque exploration of the theme of St. Anthony’s sermon to the fishes.”

After writing this much of the symphony, Mahler wasn’t sure how to finish. He seemed stuck until he went to the funeral of Hans von Bülow, the most esteemed conductor in Germany. During the funeral, he heard a setting of Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection) by the poet Klopstock. “It struck me like lightning, this thing,” Mahler wrote later, “and everything was revealed to me clear and plain.”

Olson describes the ending with Mahler’s setting of Die Auferstehung: “The chorus enters about the last 8 or 10 minutes of this movement in very a hymn-like, chorale-like fashion, and from there to the end it’s just one glorious moment of resurrection.

“It doesn’t get any more powerful than this.”

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