Jan Sibelius and Gustav Mahler took a walk in 1907. The two famous composers of symphonies discussed what attracted them to the form. Sibelius favored its severity of style and formal logic. Mahler said, “No! A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”
The Spokane Symphony, under its music director Eckart Preu, showed just what Mahler meant. The orchestra ended its Classic Series Saturday and Sunday at The Fox with a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 that showed the sweet beauty and hellish turbulence of the world of Mahler’s mind. The performance I heard Saturday made for an exhilarating but exhausting adventure.
Preu eased into the spirit of Mahler with two short pieces from John Williams’ scores for films on Jewish subjects, his arrangement of “Hatikva” from Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” and the well-known theme from the same director’s “Schindler’s List.” They were a reminder that Mahler, despite his conversion to Catholicism, was always conscious of his Jewish birth.
Both pieces showed Williams at his best evoking somber beauty and human vulnerability. Both were showcases for the excellent Mateusz Wolski, the symphony’s concertmaster.
Wolski’s combination of tonal warmth and rock-solid technique brought back memories of the violin solos in the studio orchestras of Hollywood’s glory days with superb violinists like Felix Slatkin and Louis Kaufmann.
Preu chose the second-movement “Psalm” from Paul Ben-Haim’s Symphony No. 1 to connect the European symphonic tradition, which the composer learned in his upbringing and early experience in Germany, with the Middle Eastern music he came to know when he moved to Palestine in 1933. “Psalm” begins quietly and builds to a mighty climax before moving to a very quiet close. The performance made this listener wish to hear the whole of Ben-Haim’s First Symphony.
Instead, intermission was followed by Mahler’s own First Symphony.
In the earliest versions of this symphony, Mahler gave the first movement the title “Spring Without End.” No other composer can make a listener smell and feel the spring freshness like Mahler or make one feel the undercurrent of conflicted emotions. Preu and the orchestra balance the light and dark of Mahler’s spring and the ironic humor of the composer’s fleeing laughter as the movement ends.
Saturday’s performance featured some exceptionally fine playing from the principal woodwinds and an eerily effective passage for three off-stage trumpets.
In a pre-performance talk, Preu described the second movement as a country dance where everyone seems to be trying too hard to have a good time. Then there is a middle section that “is so sweet it leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” the conductor added. He made the contrast stark and startling.
Even greater contrasts came in the third movement, which begins with the solo string bass playing the melody “Frère Jacques” in a minor key in a very high register. Principal bass Patrick McNally played it beautifully, probably much more beautifully than Mahler experienced! Inside the third movement is music that could have only come out of the klezmer tradition with its unique combination of winds, violin and percussion.
Saturday’s performance made The Fox audience realize how shocking Frère Jacques and music from the Prague ghetto must have been to a “civilized” symphony audience in Hamburg or Vienna. Preu promised that Sunday’s performance would have the entire bass section play the opening solo – a practice Mahler abandoned after the first few performances.
Mahler first called the symphony’s finale “From the Inferno to Paradise.” Though he later discarded the title, its spirit was very much present Saturday from the impact of the shots, which open the movement. The theme continued through the music’s waves of hellish uproar from the stage full of musicians, ranging from the shrieking piccolo through the snarl of loud muted brasses and the thunder of percussion and timpani.
Mahler’s “Paradise” arrived at in the movement’s end is a city without a noise ordinance. It isn’t my idea of paradise, but the performance was my idea of Mahler’s world excellently recaptured.
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