A perfect piece for Robert Olson’s final MahlerFest

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Keith Bobo

Robert Olson’s final concerts with the Colorado MahlerFest will be memorable occasions — for Boulder audiences, for the festival’s world-wide fans and for Olson himself.

Olson will lead his final two concerts with the festival that he nurtured from the merest of ideas 28 years ago to an event recognized around the world today, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 16 and 17. He will conduct Mahler’s Ninth Symphony — the last of the composer’s completed symphonies — which he says is “not only the most perfect piece to end on, but may be one of the most perfect pieces, period.”

The festival will also include film showings at the Boedecker Theater at the Dairy Center, at 2 p.m. Thursday and Friday, May 14 and 15; and a free public symposium on the University of Colorado Boulder campus Saturday, May 16.

Apart from the opportunity to hear one of Mahler’s less frequently performed masterpieces, this year’s concerts will be memorable for audiences because Olson’s appearances at MahlerFest have become a familiar part of the Boulder musical landscape. After these concerts, that landscape changes.

It will be memorable for Mahler fans around the world who have come to Boulder over the years because many of them will return to hear Olson conduct one last time.

“I’m excited as I can be,” Olson says, “because almost all of these people are planning to come back for my final year.”

And it will be memorable for Olson for many reasons: the return of old friends; the opportunity to conduct a symphony that is close to his heart; the meaning of a work he calls “Mahler’s farewell symphony”; and the inevitable emotions that come with the end of an era.

Not one to dwell on his own feelings, Olson says he would rather “do the last note, walk off the stage and get on with it.” But he acknowledges that the emotions will be powerful.

“I’ve wept twice in my life on the podium,” he says.  “But I can guarantee you, this will be my third and fourth times.”

Mahler wrote his Ninth Symphony in 1909, just two years before his death. Many of his familiar musical gestures are present — trumpet calls, the evocation of distant sounds in the mountains, shocking changes of mood — distilled into the most intense essence of his style that Mahler ever achieved.

“From the very beginning we can visualize Mahler, hands in pockets, vested suit, taking his daily walk in the Austrian alps,” Olson says. “It’s just a leisurely pace where he is reflecting on all his thoughts of his whole life and death and love.”

If the first movement starts with a sense of peace and reflection, there is plenty of tension later, including a section that Olson calls “the long nightmare that’s really quite horrifying.”

“It gets much stormier as the movement unfolds,” he says, “with a climax that can equal any of the great climaxes that Mahler composed. But the beginning and the end of the first movement are gems of peaceful satisfaction.”

The two central movements are types familiar to fans of Mahler’s music: a Ländler, an Austrian folk dance that Olson describes as “really quite comical and quite delightful”; and a scherzo that goes so fast that orchestral string players find it fiendishly difficult to play.

But it is the last movement, the most drawn out of all of Mahler’s long-lined Adagio movements, that is most memorable.

“It has arguably the most beautiful melody ever created, anywhere,” Olson says. “The most difficult five minutes of the piece is the last 37 measures, which take about five minutes to perform. This is Mahler’s farewell, as one section after another drops out, the motives get reduced to shorter and shorter entities, and it gets softer and softer as fewer people play.

“It’s one of the most treacherous 37 measures in all of music. You have to maintain control, but with all the emotional entanglements with this being my farewell, I’m worried about my ability to navigate through all of this.”

A successor to Olson as director of MahlerFest has not yet been named, but Olson says, “The board has found someone we’re all very excited about. The ink is not on the paper yet, but it is my sincere hope that we’ll be able to make an announcement at the festival.”

In the meantime, Olson wants audiences to come and let Mahler’s music wash over them again, for the same reasons he started the festival in the first place: “Every piece by Mahler contains almost every human experience within it, whether it be tragedy or celebration, or triumph, or defeat, or death, or love — they’re all there to be uncovered and enjoyed.”

ON THE BILL: Colorado MahlerFest XXVIII. MahlerFest Orchestra, Robert Olson, artistic director and conductor. Mahler: Symphony No. 9, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 16, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 17. Mackey Auditorium, 303-492-8440, www. mahlerfest.org. Films: Mahler auf der Couch (Mahler on the Couch) 2 p.m. Thursday, May 14 For Love of Mahler: The Inspired Life of Henry-Louis de la Grange (World Premiere) 2 p.m. Friday, May 15 The Boedecker Theater at the Dairy Center, 2590 Walnut St, Boulder. Tickets: 303- 444-7328. Symposium: 8:30 a.m. Saturday, May 16, University of Colorado Boulder campus, free and open to the public