Leaving on a high note

MahlerFest bids farewell to departing CU professor Julie Simson

Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson, left, and Julie Simson flank MahlerFest conductor Robert Olson.
Photo by Keith Bobo


We lead angelic lives,%u2028
Yet have a merry time of it besides.
We dance and we spring,%u2028
We skip and we sing.%u2028
Saint Peter in heaven looks on.

This innocent view of the hereafter is portrayed in the text and music of the finale to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, one of the featured works of this year’s Colorado MahlerFest.

On the orchestral program with the early symphony is another, less innocent but still comforting portrayal of eternity, “Der Abschied” (The farewell) from one of Mahler’s last works, Das Lied von der Erde (The song of the earth).

Performances with conductor Robert Olson, soprano Jennifer Bird- Arvidsson, mezzo Julie Simson and the MahlerFest orchestra will be 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 17, and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 19, in Macky Auditorium (www.mahlerfest.org).

Olson chose “Der Abschied” to honor Simson, who is making her final MahlerFest appearance before leaving Boulder to take a job at Rice University. She has sung many MahlerFest performances over her years on the CU faculty, and will also sing a farewell gala in her honor, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 18, at the Academy in Boulder (970 Aurora Ave.).

“It’s very, very exciting and a real honor that they would do this for me,” Simson says. “I haven’t been able to rehearse [“Der Abschied”] yet without crying. It’s a very melancholy time for me because I’ve been here 23 years and love it here and I’ve had wonderful colleagues and wonderful students.

“I’m hoping I’m getting that all out of my system before I have to do it on stage,” she adds.

When Olson heard Simson was leaving Boulder, he wanted to “honor her for what she’s done for the MahlerFest and for the University of Colorado.

“I have always respected her musicianship,” Olson says. “She sang a Song of the Wayfarer, the piece she’s going to sing Saturday night. I’ve heard this piece what, 100 times? And I was in tears. I’ve never had anything affect me so strongly as that performance.”

“Der Abschied” is ideal for Simson’s MahlerFest farewell because the text literally describes the parting of two friends. It is, Olson says, “the most colorful, beautiful, intimate piece of music ever written. Period.”

Like the Fourth Symphony, it addresses the idea of eternity, but unlike much of Mahler’s music, it does so with serenity and music of ethereal beauty. The spirit of the movement is captured in the text: “Where I am going? I am going to wander into the mountains. I seek peace for my lonely heart.”

As serene as the music sounds, it is not easy to perform.

“It’s harder than a son of a gun,” Olson says. “I’ve been conducting now for I think 44 years, and only twice in my life have I ever had to pick up the phone and call a professional and say, ‘How do you do this?’ And this definitely is one of the pieces. I’m glad to say in both cases my assumption was correct.

“What makes it difficult is that Mahler, in this piece, destroys any sense of meter or barlines, for major sections. But there’s a certain beauty to the simplicity of it all. It’s a piece that you can sit back and just listen to the way it gradually evaporates in a heavenly mist, if you will.”

Pairing the heavenly mist of “Der Abschied” with the innocence and simple joy of the Fourth Symphony was an inspired choice. Coming from opposite ends of Mahler’s life, they present two different sides of the composer, neither of them the tormented soul we often think of.

“We don’t have all the sturm und drang that is so common in Mahler’s music, all the death on our doorstep Mahler was preoccupied with,” Olson says of the symphony. “Starting off with sleigh bells on the first few bars — what could be happier than that?

“The whole first movement is like this — it’s just kind of a happy piece. And the third movement is the crown jewel. Has anyone ever written more beautiful music than this slow movement? It’s about as simple as it can be, just simple and innocent. And drop-dead beautiful.

“Then the last movement, it’s so beautiful, a little child singing about what heaven must be like. It ends quietly and peacefully — the music just gradually leaves the stage. It’s quieter and quieter and quieter, ending in a sense of total satisfied peace.”

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