Gustav Mahler’s contemporaries acknowledged him as a masterful, passionately intense and busy conductor.
Oh, yes, and in his spare time Mahler also wrote 10 symphonies and nearly 50 songs. He died in May 1911, just two months short of his 51st birthday.
The Spokane Symphony will observe the centennial of Mahler’s death in its season-closing concerts Saturday and Sunday at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox.
The central work is Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. The program also includes Paul Ben-Haim’s “Psalm” and John Williams’ “Theme from ‘Schindler’s List.’ ”
“Since this year is the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death,” says Music Director Eckart Preu, “we programmed two of his symphonies this season: Erwin Stein’s chamber orchestra version of Mahler’s Fourth on the Casual Classics series, and the full orchestra version of the First Symphony for our season finale.”
Mahler finished Symphony No. 1 in 1888 thinking of it as a five-movement symphonic poem with an elaborate descriptive program that he later eliminated.
The symphony underwent some major revisions and endless tinkering before Mahler settled on the final four-movement form.
“Even though he made several versions before arriving at its final state, many of those changes are in very small details in instrumentation and dynamics,” Preu notes.
“It was a conductor fooling around with his own music. Everything about this symphony screams, ‘A conductor wrote this.’ You can feel it everywhere. He knew exactly what he was after, but it took him a while to actually get there.”
Adds Preu: “Even though he was very diligent in the tiniest details, performing traditions have developed that ignore them. Composers are always up against later conductors, even if that composer happened to be a great conductor himself.”
Mahler was not only a great symphonist, he was an outstanding song composer. The First Symphony is full of a wide array of musical quotations, including a strange version of the folk song “Frère Jacques” (“Bruder Martin” to German speakers) in the third movement.
“Mahler quoted at least three of his own songs,” Preu says, “but also he also quotes from Schubert’s ‘Moments Musicaux’ and from Liszt’s ‘Faust’ and ‘Dante’ symphonies.
“This is the symphony where he uses quotations the most. They give a most interesting background to Mahler’s thinking, and they make it easier to get what he was after.”
Mahler had a notable career as a conductor that included musical directorships of the Imperial Opera and the Philharmonic in Vienna, and at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic in New York.
But he always thought of himself as an outcast – born in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) but living in Austria; an Austrian citizen working among German musicians; and most of all, as Mahler himself said, “a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.”
Preu underlined this isolated side of Mahler’s personality in this weekend’s program by including the “Psalm” by Ben-Haim, a notable German-born Israeli composer.
“Ben-Haim’s ‘Psalm’ comes from his own First Symphony, a work I don’t know except for this one movement,” Preu admits. “I first heard it on a recording years ago, and I found it very beautiful, very singable and very memorable. …
“It reminds me of Bloch in its melodies and in its texture. But there is something of the French quality of Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ in its orchestration, as well.”
Preu will open the concerts with the theme music Williams composed for Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List.”
Music from movies usually turns up in the symphony’s pops concerts, rarely on classics programs.
“I don’t think that the music for ‘Schindler’s List’ is pops-concert stuff just because it is by John Williams,” Preu says. “If anything it is anti-pops. He really succeeded in this score of overcoming the fluffiness and superficiality of most film scores, even of his own.
“I really feel touched in much the way I feel touched by Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It’s music that digs deeper than just being beautiful, it’s music that is truly moving, too.”
Preu will discuss the music on this weekend’s program in a pre-concert talk one hour before each performance, and in an after-talk from the stage with some of the symphony musicians following each concert.
Both performances will also include a post-concert celebration of the past season and a sneak preview of the surprises in store for next season.