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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

And Here's to Mahler!

Rossen Milanov conducts the Columbus Symphony this weekend, in Mahler's Symphony 4, Johann Strauss's Fruhlingstimmen and Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra by Osvaldo Golijov. Dawn Upshaw is the soloist. April 15, and 16 8 p.m. in the Ohio Theater.

Mention a Mahler symphony to anyone who has never heard a Mahler symphony and the reactions run the gamut from interest to running from the room with horror. Listen once and you'll find them addictive. A good addiciton. A life giving addiciton. I promise.


Gustav Mahler (180-1911) was a big personality who worked in large forms. During his lifetime he was one of the most celebrated conductors in the world. Before his early death, he had served directorships in Hamburg, and been music director of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Hofoper, the New York Philharmonic, and with Toscanini was the dominant musical personality at the Metropolitan Opera. Mahler's musical word was law, wherever he worked. Add to this a difficult marriage to Alma Schindler and the death of two young children and its a miracle he lived as long as he did.
As a composer, Mahler is remembered today for his enormous symphonies and his volumes of songs. There is no chamber music, there are no opera and no sacred music. There are nine numbered symphonies, part of a tenth, and his final work Das Lied von der Erde often classified as another symphony.

What about the Symphony number 4?

It's a curious work. This symphony is the spring time Mahler. He seems less mired in the struggle between life and death, light and dark, breath and no breath . Work began in the summer of 1900. When else was he going to write music? On the train between conducting gigs all over Europe (yes) ? But Mahler counted on idyllic summers in the Austrian Alps for his work. When a local band began practising within earshot, the composer thought he'd have to bid farewell to the Symphony until he could move. One day the band left. Three days later work began and three weeks later the symphony was complete.

Almost. We have a first moment that opens with sleigh bells and offers a soaring early theme for the violins. A second movement he-I imagine gleefully called a dance of death, with he violins a scordatura, tuned higher than the other instruments, giving a rough, almost nasty sound. Then the most sublime adagio. Richard Strauss told Mahler, I could never ave written music like that. Mahler himself imagined "St. Ursula, the most serious of the saints, presiding with a smile."
Mahler's obsession with larger forms brought him literally to the heavens. It was as if he had no other way to out write himself, in the time he he had left.

Mahler intended to end his third symphony with a child's vision of heaven, a poem from the German folk collection, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. 

The Third went a different way. But there's a lovely interlude with three angels


Three angles sang a sweet song...they shouted joyfully the whole...that Peter was free from sin...

But there's a theme here Mahler used again in the Fourth: Du sollst ja nicht weisen/Ach komm und erbarme dich uber mich:  Thou shall not weep/O come and have mercy on me...becomes the refrain in Das himmlische leben:  Saint Peter looks on...The Angels bake bread!....Saint Martha must be the cook!  The angelic voices cheer the senses, so that all awake to joy!

Mahler needed a finale for his fourth symphony. The work began larger, ran into a raucous dance, and settled into that gorgeous adagio. The finish was provided by another setting of the Wunderhorn songs, which he had completed ten years earlier. It is not an anti climax, but a pendant. A child's vision of heaven, Das himmlische Leben, The Heavenly Life


 
The Fourth became the most accessible of the Mahler symphonies. At just under an hour it is the shortest. It does not predict the end of the world. Instead, after a storm it suggests peace, with a child's smile.





Osvaldo Golijov was born in La Plata, Argentina in 1960. He studied there, and later in Israel an the States. Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra are part of the composer's output written for soprano Dawn Upshaw. Golijov has a sophisticated background, but his tone it seems to me is more at home with the Wunderhorn songs of the Mahler Fourth than the high drama of the later Mahler Symphonies. Golijov brings to his music the influences of the Far East, French sophistication and downtown grunge. What he also has is a gift for the sublime.  He can create music which is not slow, but timeless, as if time  is  unnecessary, the music filling every need:

Golijov spent a week at OSU a few years ago. He was a charming and modest gentleman and very generous with his time. I found him happier discussing the other people's music than his own. Still, I was about to discover for myself his terrific klezmer themed The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, and his oratorio La pasion segun San Marco. The St. Mark Passion was recently heard on Classical 101s Musica Sacra. I was lucky enough to catch a performance of his opera Ainadamar in Boston, another work written for Dawn Upshaw. (Note to composers:If Dawn Upshaw want sing to sing your music, DO NOT SAY NO)

Lua descolorida are verses by the Galician poet Rosalia de Castro (1837-1885)

 Moon, colorless, like the color of pale gold; though you see me, I'd like you not to see me from the heights; Take me in your rays, silently, to the space where you travel



The other songs in this set are How Slow the Wind to poetry by Emily Dickinson, and the lullaby Night of the Flying Horses, Close Your Eyes by Sally Potter, sung in Yiddish and used in Potter's film The Man who Cried. There's a sense of space, time and culture in all of Golijov's music, along with a healthy entertainment-quotient. He transcends the tango, the downtown grunge, and yiddischkeit.

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