Gustav Mahler no longer needs champions. The composer famously said, "My time will come," at the turn of the 20th century, when critics and audiences were likely to be dismissive or derogatory. But for the past five decades or so, his music has been heard just about everywhere, every year.
Still, Mahler will enjoy more limelight than usual during the 2010-2011 season, and that will have his fans in constant anticipation mode. No less than six of Mahler's nine completed symphonies will be performed in the Baltimore/Washington area, not to mention "Das Lied von der Erde," "Kindertotenlieder," "Ruckert Lieder" and the first movement of the unfinished Tenth Symphony.
Two matters of chronology have prompted all the attention. Aptly, given Mahler's own obsessions with life and death, these anniversaries have to do with the composer's entrance and exit. He was born 150 years ago, on July 7, 1860, in the Bohemian town of Kalischt; he died on May 18, 1911, in Vienna.
Although some people remain unmoved by Mahler — they are more to be pitied than censured — many listeners are known to become thoroughly transported or deeply shaken up by the experience of hearing his music.
And Mahler fans are hardly of one type. He appeals to those with musically romantic tendencies, folks ever drawn to the likes of, say, Tchaikovsky; he appeals as well to super-intellectuals who wouldn't be caught dead listening to the works of that emotional 19th-century Russian fellow. Melodists love Mahler, but so do atonalists. Upbeat types can find Mahler exhilarating, while depressive types can wrap themselves in the darker, bleaker elements in his music and even be the happier for it.
There isn't a single symphony by Mahler that plays steadfastly by the rules of the game, that goes in totally predictable directions. Within the span of one movement, a wealth of moods and colors and images can be conjured up. Unexpected things happen all the time, and they still surprise after innumerable encounters.
The gentle sounds of mandolin and guitar, for example, during the second of "Night Music" movements of Symphony No. 7 are as exotic as they are perfect. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, led by Marin Alsop, will perform the Seventh this week.
The sleigh bells that accompany the opening of Symphony No. 4 provide more than just aural novelty. Like Proust's famed madeleine, the sound suddenly opens up a whole nostalgic world of feelings, memories and, perhaps, long-forgotten desires. Christoph Eschenbach, who begins his tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra this season, will conduct the Fourth in the spring. (A New York critic, after hearing this symphony in the early 1900s, called the experience "the most painful music torture" he had ever endured. Tastes have changed.)
In "Das Lied von der Erde" ("The Song of the Earth") for two vocalists and orchestra, Mahler uses ancient Chinese poems to explore his favorites themes — yes, life and death — in such fresh and profound ways that you may feel you have learned more about both than you ever did before. Mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe and tenor Simon O'Neill join Alsop and the BSO for "Das Lied" in May. The month before, the Peabody Camerata will offer a chamber music arrangement of this compelling work.
The words "Mahler and monumentality" go together. His symphonies were longer, larger and louder than anyone's before him. For this, he was reviled, of course ("musical monstrosity" was one of the more polite comments in the press). But Mahler didn't think big for the sake of bigness. He really did see a symphony as a universe unto itself, with all the power and scope that implies.
Always conscious of everyday contrasts around him, especially those found in the same vicinity at the same time — poverty and wealth; contentment and misery; beauty and hideousness — Mahler quite naturally sought sonic extremes as well. When he visited Niagara Falls, he reportedly said: "Fortissimo at last!"
For sheer impact, it's hard to beat the sound of Symphony No. 8, nicknamed "Symphony of a Thousand" because of all the singers and instrumentalists involved. "Imagine the whole universe begins to vibrate and resound," Mahler said about this score.
When the assembled multitudes burst forth at the opening — a bracing and embracing treatment of the Latin hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus" — all that vibrating and resounding can easily set off chills. The subsequent movement, a setting of lines from Part II of Goethe's "Faust," achieves a truly mystical effect, even if some of the text can be a little mystifying. The cosmic release of the closing minutes reveals a simple, yet overwhelming, message: The universe is eternal, and we are forever a part of it. It's enough to shake a non-believer's will.
Washington Performing Arts Society presents a performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony with the Mariinsky Orchestra and other forces, led by Valery Gergiev, at the Kennedy Center next month.
In addition to all the Mahler music in store this season, the BSO will examine the man and his mind in a program in November that sets out to re-create his consultation with Sigmund Freud (during a rough patch in Mahler's marriage).
The orchestra will also provide a welcome look at the controversial reorchestrations Mahler made of works by other composers. A suite of Bach pieces that Mahler arranged and introduced during his brief tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic will be played this week. Later, Alsop will lead performances of the Mahlerized versions of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, Schumann's Symphony No. 1 and more.
Mahler did not commit artistic vandalism when he touched up the instrumentation of past masters. He was looking, as always, for the best possible sonic result, ways to ensure the clarity of melodic lines and orchestral texture and to enhance the expressive impact. He was hardly the last conductor to perform such tampering, especially in the case of Schumann, once widely believed to be a poor orchestrator.
Hearing the BSO play familiar music by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and even Smetana as re-envisioned by Mahler is one more way to learn about him and the way he thought. At the same time, it can refocus our ears on those composers he "helped."
Throughout 2010-2011, the presence of Mahler will be keenly felt. The season-long commemoration of his birth and death reconfirms his place in the classical pantheon. It is worth celebrating his uncanny ability to touch our minds and hearts, his way of speaking at once personally and universally. His music offers a window into the darkest and brightest elements of this life, another into the shadows and promises of the next.
Mahler's time, it turns out, is forever.
A Mahler Season
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Symphony No. 7 and Bach Suite arranged by Mahler, Friday at Meyerhoff Hall, Saturday at Strathmore. Also, the "Blumine" movement originally intended for Symphony No. 1, Oct. 14-16; Adagio from Symphony No. 10 and Mahler's arrangement of Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3, Nov. 4; re-enactment of Mahler/Freud session, with music from symphonies and vocal works, Nov. 5-6; Mahler's arrangement of Beethoven's "Eroica," Nov. 11-12; "Das Lied von der Erde," May 6-8; Mahler's arrangement of Schumann's "Manfred" Overture and Symphony No. 1, May 12-15; Britten's arrangement of the second movement from Mahler's Symphony No. 2, May 27-28. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.
Peabody Institute: Adagietto from Symphony No. 5, Oct. 23; Symphony No. 5, Feb. 1; "Ruckert Lieder," Feb. 11; "Das Lied von der Erde" (chamber version), April 9. Call 410-234-4800 or go to peabody.jhu.edu/events.
National Symphony Orchestra: "Kindertotenlieder" and Symphony No. 5, Oct. 14-16; Adagio from Symphony No. 10, Nov. 18-20; Symphony No. 4, April 7-9. Call 800-444-1324 or go to kennedy-center.org.
Mariinsky Orchestra, Choral Arts Society of Washington: Symphony No. 8, Oct. 19. Call 202-785-9727 or go to wpas.org.
National Philharmonic: Symphony No. 2, Oct. 9. Call 301-581-5100 or go to nationalphilharmonic.org.