Pleading the Fifth

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From music critic Lindsay Koob:

Gustov Mahler’s mighty Symphony No. 5 is his first fully “mature” work. It took him back to purely orchestral writing after three straight symphonies that included vocal elements, and tended to vent his lofty philosophical and spiritual ideals. But all that changed with the enigmatic fifth.

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They say that the greatest art is often the result of its creator’s deepest pain or personal crisis. For Beethoven, it was his encroaching deafness. For Schubert, it was the ravages of the syphilis that killed him outrageously young. For Mahler, it was his first close brush with death. Never a healthy man, stress and overwork (he was his era’s leading conductor) brought on an internal hemorrhage that almost killed him. And his entire approach to symphonic writing and emotional expression soon lurched in a very different direction.

That may explain why the fifth begins with a harrowing funeral march — one that could have been his own. The following episode offers no relief — you wouldn’t expect any in a movement marked “stormy, with greatest vehemence.” Grief, terror, doubt, unspeakable melancholy — it’s all there, and in spades. It’s the fevered outcry of a man who’s just been smacked upside the head with his own mortality. Given the encroaching heart disease that did him in about a decade later, this is a theme that was to haunt most of the rest of his output.

But hey, it’s not over yet. It’s on to the scherzo movement, where things lighten up quite a bit. This edgy, but exuberant romp seems to tell us to gather our rosebuds while we may — and it sure beats the scenario that he’s just dragged us through. Then things get positively drippy in the Adagietto, his searing love-song to his wife Alma. It’s a marvel of romantic yearning for strings and harp that makes you wonder if anyone’s ever loved you that much. In the wake of near-tragedy, Mahler counts his blessings here, while reminding us that great art can also be inspired by joy. The manic finale shouts that joy and more to the skies, bringing all to a grand and life-affirming close.

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A fringe benefit of Mahler’s first near-fatal malady came from his sickbed study of J.S. Bach’s works, which led to his increased use of advanced counterpoint from then on. But that also made the fifth his “problem child”: he was never happy with what he considered his first clumsy attempts, and he tinkered with its orchestral textures and balances off and on for the rest of his life. The definitive final version wasn’t published until nearly 80 years later. But posterity agrees that he finally got it right.

Last year’s Festival Concert was a near-pentultimate orchestral experience. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring — an aural juggernaut if there ever was one — hit us like a sonic prop-blast. Look for similar effect from the Mahler. But while Stravinsky led us through primitive pagan soundscapes, Herr M. will take us on an unsettling musical tour of the human psyche, warts and all. Mahler was the first composer to plumb the soul’s depths quite so radically, the first to bare raw and primal fears so painfully. No wonder we had to wait several generations after his death before listeners finally began to catch on to him.

That’s also why the piece leaves most listeners so emotionally drained. It’s a headlong manic-depressive roller-coaster ride. And amid the grit, turmoil, loves, and triumphs of our own lives, we emerge from Mahler’s musical cauldron cleansed and comforted, not to mention elevated.

Maestro Villaume and his superb “orchestra of virtuosos” are equipped to deliver this amazing music to its full potential, just as they did for Mahler’s mystical Symphony No. 9 a couple of festivals back. I can hardly wait. If ears could drool… —LK

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