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Tuesday, November 20 , 2018, 10:33 am | Fair 68º


Gerald Carpenter: Music Academy Festival Orchestra Takes the Mahler Test

The next performance by the Music Academy Festival Orchestra takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Granada Theatre. On this occasion, the orchestra will be conducted by the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä.

Finnish-born conductor Osmo Vänskä will direct the Festival Orchestra in works by Aho and Mahler.

Maestro Vänskä, born in Finland, will direct the orchestra in the performance of two works, one brief, the other not so much. The opening work will be "Geija," Chinese Images for Orchestra (2012) by Vänskä's countryman, Kalevi Ensio Aho (born 1949); the rest of the evening will be taken up with Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in C#-Minor (1903), which has so far resisted all attempts to attach a permanent nickname to it.

"Unlike much of Mahler's work, the Fifth Symphony has no specific extra-musical connotations. It is also less subjective than Mahler's preceding works or the deeply personal scores of his final years. But jointly, its five movements proclaim Mahler's perennial theme: the gathering up of limitless diversity into a vision of encompassing unity.

"The symphony is the product of a happy summer vacation in 1903 (though re-orchestrated later) and its mood is predominantly genial. Even the opening 'Funeral March' is far from morbid ... ."

Thus spake Herbert Reid, in the liner notes to the 1963 recording of Mahler's Fifth Symphony by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. As many time as I have read these lines over the years, they still take my breath away with their fatuous insistence on getting everything wrong.

I had listened to the symphony several times, and had even purchased the Bruno Walter recording of it, before I actually heard it.

There were four of us, sitting on the floor in my friend's apartment, in a small room that was probably meant to be a den but had no furniture, just a few cushions scattered about and some up-to-the-minute stereo components. Three of us were already Mahlerites; the fourth had never heard a note of Mahler, and was not particularly interested in classical music. In the pause while my friend changed records after the second movement, the neophyte picked up the jacket (it was the Bernstein recording) and started reading the liner notes aloud. When he came to the part about a "happy summer vacation" he started laughing, and it proved contagious; we all collapsed in hysterics. When we settled down a little, he said, "Is he talking about what we just heard?"

Yet when the third movement began, we were all four instantly under its spell, and remained transfixed until the end of the symphony. "That was really something," breathed the young man. "I've never heard anything like it. Thank you."

Nothing I can write about this symphony will bring you closer to it. Only listening to it will do that. It makes no argument, and tells no story, contains no universal truths. Yet, it speaks directly to the listener's soul, and becomes part of the furniture of that soul. It is a different emotional journey for each of us, each time we take it. Images, real as life, paint themselves and then erase themselves. We become like "Those who have crossed/With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom” (Eliot). We enter the timeless world behind the mirror, in Cocteau's <I>Orphée</i>. And Mahler wrote to his wife, "We are what we are, we Moderns."

You will not remember this at all: you will stand there
Feeling the wind on your throat, the wind in your sleeves,
You will smell the dead leaves in the grass of a garden:
You will close your eyes: With whom, you will say,
Ah, where?
— Archibald MacLeish

Tickets to the Festival Orchestra concert are $10, $40 and $50, with those ages 7 to 17 admitted free. For tickets and other information, call 805.969.8787 or click here. Single tickets can also be purchased from the Granada box office at 805.899.2222 or by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk ccontributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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