Many people gathered early in the Fox Theater on Saturday night expecting to hear the customary preconcert lecture by conductor Eckart Preu on the sole work on that evening’s program: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor. Instead, Verne Windham, program director of Spokane Public Radio, walked onstage to speak about the piece, explaining that Preu wanted to take the extra time to prepare for the task ahead.
No one could blame him.
All of the great composers go beyond the limitations of their art set down by their predecessors, but no one pushed the envelope like Mahler (1860-1911). In 1907, Mahler told Jean Sibelius, “A symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything.” Mahler’s Third Symphony is his most extravagant example. Instead of the customary four movements, it has six. Mahler was not content with the orchestra that sufficed Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony – instead of Beethoven’s three horns, there were nine onstage at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. Instead of two flutes, there were four. Where Beethoven asks for a single timpanist, Mahler requires two, each with a full set of instruments. To this, Mahler further adds a choir of female voices and a children’s choir, as well as an alto soloist.
Not only is Mahler’s instrumentation vastly augmented in the Third Symphony, but so is his musical thinking. Virtually every bar bristles with contrasts – dynamic, rhythmic and harmonic. Preu faced two challenges: first, to balance the sound so that every strand of Mahler’s dense texture would be audible; second, to manage the forward movement of the piece so that each contrasting section would make its full effect without obscuring the symphony’s overall design.
Fortunately for his audience, Preu was well equipped to do this, employing the superb acoustics of the hall and the brilliant musicianship of his orchestra to provide both magnificent sound and a thrilling emotional and intellectual experience. In the immense opening movement, for example, Mahler portrays the awakening of Pan, the classical god of nature, whom Mahler uses to represent the creative power of nature. Preu had to balance sections of music of a heavy, dirge-like character, representing Pan’s heavy slumber, with sections that were brisk, lively and aggressive, suggesting the resurgence of the life-force.
Here and throughout the evening, principal trombone Ross Holcombe played with the greatest beauty of tone and vividness of characterization. Like Holcombe, concertmaster Mateusz Wolski and principal oboe Keith Thomas played varying roles in every movement of the symphony, playing difficult music of wildly varying character with unflagging mastery. Although principal trumpet Larry Jess encountered some uncharacteristic technical problems on Saturday, the variety and shading of his tone was remarkable, especially in the Third Movement, when his offstage playing, warm and nostalgic over shimmering violins, produced a magical effect.
In the Fourth and Fifth movements, Mahler calls for an alto to perform settings of two poems of dramatically different character. In this weekend’s concerts, that job fell to MaryAnn McCormick, whose alluring and beautifully even voice could serve as a model to any singer. When that voice was first heard intoning Mahler’s music, after nearly an hour of instrumental music, the effect was unforgettable.
In the Fifth Movement, the musicians were joined by the alto section of the Spokane Symphony Chorale, led by their new director, Kristina Ploeger, as well as women of the Whitworth Choir and members of the Spokane Area Youth Choir, both led by Marc Hafso. This movement is the briefest of the symphony, yet it is crucial to its meaning, for it is at this point that Mahler makes the transition from considering artistic creation in worldly, material terms to viewing it as a bridge to eternity.
The vitality and cheeky impudence projected by the combined choirs, set against the mournful beauty of McCormick’s responses, provided exactly what Mahler was asking for in preparing us for the Sixth and final movement: a sublime adagio.
Excepting J.S. Bach, no one but Mahler has ever written anything quite like this music in its ability to engage our deepest feelings of longing for spiritual transcendence. At this point, Mahler relies primarily on the string sections of the orchestra to express his unique brand of yearning lyricism. The symphony strings provided wave after wave of increasingly rich and alluring tone, leading to the gradual re-entry of the entire orchestra. The final exultant chorale, supported by the thundering of both timpanists in perfect synchrony, seemed to welcome us all, if only for a moment, into heaven.
A recording of this program will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Monday on Spokane Public Radio, 91.1 FM.