Music for musicians

Artists’ passion drives MahlerFest, and audiences still support it

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

Twenty-for years ago, Robert Olson went for a walk at the Dillon Reservoir. His wife was in a rehearsal at the Breckenridge Music Festival, so he took a book along.

It was a biography of the composer Gustav Mahler, and by the end of the day Olson had had a crazy idea that is still paying off for music lovers in Boulder and around the world: He would start an annual festival devoted to Mahler’s music.

The obstacles were obvious. Mahler’s music requires very large orchestras and often a chorus. It is extremely challenging to the players and the conductor, and it has a limited, if devoted, audience of its own. Nobody had ever attempted anything like it.

“I went back and picked up my wife and said, ‘Guess what I’m going to do?’” Olson recalls. “She just looked at me like, ‘You’re kidding!’” He wasn’t. The first Colorado%uFFFD took place in Boulder the next year, with a budget of $431. In the 23 intervening years the event has gotten a bit more lavish — this year’s budget is about $65,000 — but the format has stayed the same. There is always a song recital or other chamber event, a symposium and a concluding concert featuring one of the symphonies (played more or less in order, 1 through 10, in recurring cycles).

The culmination of MahlerFest XXIV, according to its website, will be at Macky Auditorium on Saturday, May 21, and Sunday, May 22, with performances of the Fifth Symphony and the little-known Entr’acte from Die Drei Pintos, an opera by Karl Maria von Weber that Mahler completed and performed in 1888. (See the complete schedule at

While audiences have flocked to the Mahler Festival from around the country and the world, they were not the primary inspiration for the festival.

“It was obvious to me that good musicians will sometimes go to great lengths to be part of a really great musical experience,” Olson says. “Back then [1987], the only Mahler symphonies that orchestras other than full-time professional orchestras played were 1, 4 and sometimes 2. So people like myself and plenty of my friends, who I knew wanted to be part of a Mahler symphony experience, simply didn’t have the opportunity. So I thought, why not, and that was the inspiration.”

The first festival was so successful that a year later, when Olson needed a larger orchestra and a chorus, he had no trouble filling the roster.

“Much to my surprise, when I sent out the letter to the people who had played the first year, and any other musicians I knew, I had to turn down people!” Like the players, audiences embraced Mahler Fest from the beginning. And why not, Olson asks.

“I always say ‘What’s there not to possibly love, for goodness sake?’ Look at his music. It’s either drop-dead gorgeous melodies, or it’s a march — I mean, who doesn’t love a march? Or it’s folk music. Or it’s the kind of climactic music that was stolen by the movie music composers! What’s there not to love?” As for the featured piece this weekend, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, “the whole piece is a journey of joyous celebration,” Olson says. “It’s a piece that, like all of Mahler, is highly emotional. It starts off with a funeral march, and ends up not only with a love song to his wife, but a song of great joy and great happiness and great love. So it’s an emotional journey that Mahler takes that we can all relate to very intimately.”

The Fifth Symphony, composed in 1901-02, stands at a turning point among Mahler’s 10 symphonies. It marks a return to the more traditional, purely instrumental symphony, after three symphonies that called for voices. It is also at the beginning of a more complex style than the first four symphonies, characterized by a more extensive use of counterpoint. (Listen particularly to the final movement.)

Interestingly, for this festival the Fifth Symphony will be paired with an earlier, and much simpler piece in the Entr’acte for Weber’s Die Drei Pintos. The juxtaposition will make it easy for listeners to observe the stylistic difference between the simpler, more folk-like Entr’acte and the more complex, contrapuntal symphony.

But with Mahler, rather than being analytical, most listeners prefer to just sit back and relish what Olson calls the “emotional journey of joyous celebration.” Once you get it, he adds, “you’re hooked for life.”