New Jerseyans certainly know what it's like to chase the summer sun. Gustav Mahler may not have sought out the boardwalk, but the composer did seek the peace and clarity that only nature in summertime can provide. In the 1890s, he conducted Hamburg's opera and symphony, and he would escape to the peace and quiet of the valleys of the Austrian Alps to relax and compose.
Over the course of four summers, Mahler poured his creativity into his third symphony, influenced heavily by the nature sounds that captivated him at his summer retreat. A massive work for orchestra, women's choir, boychoir and mezzo-soprano, Mahler 3 bears the musical imprints of the composer's infatuation with nature.
Music Director Jacques Lacombe and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra present Mahler's Third Symphony as the grand finale of the Orchestra's 2010 _11 classical season. Mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel, the Montclair State University Chorale women and the American Boychoir join the NJSO for the blockbuster symphony.
The Third Symphony is a masterpiece, to be sure. What makes it a perfect work for this program, Lacombe says, goes even beyond Mahler's "benchmark" standing in music history: "There is music before Mahler, and there is music after Mahler."
Illuminating his deep love of nature, Mahler's original titles for the symphony's movements were: "Summer marches in," "What the flowers of the meadow tell me," "What the animals of the forest tell me," "What night tells me," "What the morning bells tell me" and "What love tells me." He ultimately abandoned the programmatic movement titles, but through them, the composer provided clear insight and a sort of thematic roadmap to his symphony.
Mahler 3 "is a hymn to creation that moves from nature to God, almost," Lacombe says. "[From the original movement titles] we know the journey of the symphony goes from nature, from flowers and animals eventually to man, and ultimately to love, and to God as well. So it is a big long journey through nature and life, and it goes back to the theme of man and nature."
And it is that theme of man and nature that makes Mahler 3 the ideal capstone for the narrative arc Lacombe designed for his first season as NJSO Music Director.
The connection to the NJSO's multiyear Winter Festival exploration of "Man & Nature" is easily apparent. But to discover the true genius of Lacombe's season design, one should contrast the themes of the masterworks that bookend the 2010 _11 season. Mahler 3 and its celebration of nature close a season that began with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: perhaps the ultimate symphonic ode to universal brotherhood, to man.
Lacombe says: "When we think about nature, eventually we come to humankind, so that's why I wanted to open this season with Beethoven 9, which is a hymn to brotherhood, the idea that all humankind should be brothers and sisters. To include in that presentation very important significant speeches was, I think, a very moving experience for the people who attended those concerts. So to make an arc and end the season with this ode to creation in Mahler 3 makes this season a long, enriching journey through nature and humankind."
For Lacombe, May is Mahler 3 month. The conductor has a long history with Mahler, performing the composer's first, second, fourth and fifth symphonies several times each; he has recorded the first and fifth. "But [the third] was missing, so I'm doing it in Trois Rivires and New Jersey in May," he says.
Canadian mezzo-soprano Lebel will make the Canada-New Jersey Mahler 3 trip as well, appearing as the soloist with both orchestras Lacombe conducts. The Music Director praises Lebel, with whom he performed Mahler's Second ("Resurrection") Symphony a few years ago.
"She's a wonderful artist, and we had a good collaboration with Mahler 2, so when the project of Mahler 3 came up, my first thought was to invite her to join us," Lacombe says.
When the Orchestra named Lacombe its 13th Music Director in October 2009, he likened the relationship he and the NJSO were beginning to a marriage. Now, reflecting on his first full season at the helm of the NJSO, he says, "When you start a life with someone, it's very exciting to get to know them. I'm very happy with how the first season has gone, and I feel totally supported by the team: our musicians and our patrons. In a challenging environment, I see a very bright future for us.
"From what I hear from artists coming to work with us, and from what I've read, people look at us as having great leadership. We are a healthy arts organization, and a very important one in this part of the world. We play a significant role in New Jersey, showing what the state is about, and I feel very confident in the future of the orchestra, and in my relationship with not only the orchestra but also with [people across] the state."
And as this marriage grows, he says, what he has learned about the NJSO's musicians will help shape future seasons. He gives an example: "[One thing I had to learn was, when approaching new repertoire], how quickly can the musicians get into a new piece, a new world, a new style? When I programmed this first season, I took some chances, not knowing totally how the orchestra would process these new, challenging works. From what I've seen, the orchestra shows a great flexibility and an amazing concentration to be able to absorb new music and repertoire in a way very few orchestras can do. With very few rehearsals, we are able to achieve a very, very high level.
"This season, we've had some works by living composers who came and worked with us, and heard us perform their music: they've all said, 'Well, we've never heard it like that before!' I know that those composers were all very impressed and appreciative of the energy and the love we put into their work, and that's part of what we do," he says.
Looking ahead to next season, he affirms his commitment to American music and notes with a smile that French repertoire "is one of my specialties!"
"French repertoire needs lot of finesse, a lot of refinement. With such a fine group of musicians, you can really make something special, so I'm hoping to be able to program more French music. That's why, for instance, we're opening next season with "An American in Paris": a program that is partly French and partly American.
"Of course, the German and Romantic repertoire is the core of what we do," the Music Director says. "We'll be doing one program of two Beethoven works with a new piece by George Walker: we can excel at both the standard German repertoire and present some of the best American music."
He notes, "Whatever I can do in a program to include some more well-known established repertoire, and also give people a little bit of a surprise, something they can go home and say 'hey, I heard something new that I liked today' ... that's what I'm trying to do."
The NJSO presents Mahler 3 on Friday, May 20, (8 p.m.) at Richardson Auditorium in Princeton, Saturday, May 21, (8 p.m.) at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark and Sunday, May 22, (3 p.m.) at the State Theatre in New Brunswick. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.