Dropping the hammer

Robert Olson chooses ‘ultimate fate’ for his next-to-last MahlerFest

MahlerFest founder and artistic director Robert Olson
Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

It will be Six, Nine and out for Robert Olson.

The founder and artistic director of the Colorado MahlerFest has announced that he will retire after the 2015 festival of music by Gustav Mahler. This year’s festival, the 27th and Olson’s next-to-last, features the “Sixth Symphony,” with performances in Macky Auditorium on May 17 and 18.

The 2015 festival hasn’t been announced yet, but Olson suggests that it will probably be the “Ninth Symphony” that closes the door on his MahlerFest career.

“That’s the most appropriate piece on the planet to say goodbye with,” he says.

MahlerFest has been so close to Olson’s heart over the past 27 years that it might come as a surprise to fans that he would give it up. But, he admits, “I’m getting up there in years, and it’s just time to start cutting back.”

Olson reflects on the festival he started with some satisfaction. 

“MahlerFest does not do many things differently, for better or worse, than we did from the very beginning,” he says. “And I’m actually kind of proud of that.”

The festival board has made no decisions yet, but will consider the future of MahlerFest over the coming year. In the meantime, Olson has this year’s concerts to direct. The “Sixth,” sometimes referred to as the “Tragic” symphony, is one of Mahler’s most direct and approachable compositions.

“I think it is maybe one of the easiest symphonies of them all to conduct,” Olson says.

That’s partly because it falls into the standard four-movement pattern and partly because each movement has a clear design and character. The first movement combines an aggressive march with a beautiful second theme that Alma Mahler, the composer’s widow, said was written as a portrait of her.

Next is a slow movement that Olson characterizes as “one of the most painfully beautiful pieces of music ever conceived,” followed by a dance-like scherzo movement.

“The challenge, like all Mahler symphonies, is the scherzo,” Olson says, describing the uptempo convention that began with Beethoven and evolved to take the place of the minuet. “This one is just an incredible delight, but it’s so hard to find just the right character. One section is one of the most elegant, transparent minuets you could ask for — but with changing meters every bar!” 

Mahler’s widow Alma claimed that the composer “described himself and his downfall” in the Finale, a movement of turbulent emotional expression that seems to end in despair and tragedy. At crucial moments Mahler notoriously calls for a large hammer is to be struck loudly against a resonant box. According to Alma, the composer said these represented “blows of fate.”

Dramatic as they are, these hammer blows create all kinds of problems in performance. To start with, Mahler originally called for three, then later removed the third — symbolically fatal — blow. Today, orchestras do both versions, with two or three hammer blows — what you might call “fate light” and “ultimate fate” renditions.

Going for “ultimate fate,” Olson will have all three hammer blows.

“I didn’t have to think about that for 30 seconds,” he says. “Three just seems to be the right number of anything connected with death.”

The sound of the hammer blows can be a problem, too. It needs to be more than a dull thud; it should be loud and ominous.

“The first time we did it, we screwed around forever, because it isn’t just a box, or a box with a rug on it to muffle the sound,” Olson says. “You’ve really got to work at it.”

Thankfully, MahlerFest still has that first “blow-of-fate” box from 20 years ago, so the sound should be impressive.

Olson believes it also helps if the audience can see the hammer blow fall.

“The visual thing is important, too,” he says. “If everybody can see what is happening, they can make a connection between [what they see and what they hear].”

In contrast to the drama and emotion of the symphony, this year’s concerts will open with the five songs of Mahler’s Rückert- Lieder, performed by a smaller orchestra with mezzo soprano Abigail Nims.

The songs are a good companion to the symphony because of the contrast, Olson believes.

“It’s so intimate, it’s so reflective,” he says. “I don’t think there’s more beautiful music in the world [than a couple of the songs].”

But very likely it will be the symphony and the dramatic “blows of fate” that bring in the audience, as Olson eventually acknowledges. After a long conversation about the symphony, its movements and its meaning, he ends with a simple message for the audience:

“Stick around and you’ll see something really cool in the last movement — three times!” 

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