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Academy Orchestra Hits All the Right Notes with Mahler

The young prodigies and maestro Peter Oundjian treat the audience to a rich musical experience

Gustav Mahler’s mighty Symphony No. 7 was the fare at The Granada on Saturday, performed splendidly by the Music Academy of the West Festival Orchestra under the direction of Peter Oundjian.

Mahler’s music always provides as much darkness as light, as much fierce introspection as outflowing beauty. Symphony No. 7, dating from 1905, illustrating Mahler’s romanticism as well as his embrace of modernism. The young academy fellows were more than equal to the complexities with which Mahler presented them.

The first half of the program was devoted to a discussion of the piece, with the orchestra playing snippets as Oundjian described the work. Although the program listed the Seventh’s key signature as E minor, in truth it is tonally all over the place, Oundjian explained.

Most poignantly, in his talk Oundjian described Mahler as feeling like “a German in Austria, an Austrian in Germany, and a Jew everywhere else.” The conductor recounted an occasion when Mahler and Sigmund Freud met while both were in Holland “and they went for a walk.” Just the thought of those two Viennese wunderkind going for a stroll and a talk was moving to Oundjian and the audience alike.

Mahler was the exemplar of the suffering genius. Oundjian described the composer’s father as “brutal” and his mother as delicate. In all, the parents produced 14 children, seven of whom died in infancy. It’s little wonder that Mahler’s works include the wrenching Kindertotenlieder, or “Songs for Dead Children.”

The Seventh Symphony, however, is hardly depressing, although the second and fourth movements are both designated as “nachtmusik.” There is evidence that the first “nachtmusik: allegro moderato” was influenced by the composer’s feelings on viewing Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch.”

Mahler’s symphonic works have always struck this reviewer as prescient of the 20th century just dawning when they were written. They are filled with odd key changes, juxtapositions of martial and melancholy sections, with frequent use of the horns and other brasses, alternating with touching passages in the strings.

The Seventh includes powerful segments with the brasses and timpani, and sonorities from the cello and bass sections. Adding to the teutonic mix is the influence of writer Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly his Also Sprach Zarathustra. Mahler, an ethnic Jew who converted to Christianity, imbued this work like all his others with profound spirituality.

The fifth and final movement is a summation of the stormy passions evoked in the earlier four movements. It ends in a burst of symphonic affirmation, which brought a roar of approval from the audience and a standing ovation.

With young prodigies making up the orchestra, academy alumnus Jeff Thayer as concertmaster and Oundjian as an ebullient maestro, the evening was guaranteed to send everyone home the richer for a brilliant musical experience.

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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