If you need any graphic illustration of the rigors of a Mahler symphony, consider the young Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst. It was November 2000, and Welser-Möst had not yet been chosen as the successor to the legendary Christoph von Dohnányi as Music Director of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Welser-Möst appeared fit and bespectacled at the podium with the full-size Saint Louis Symphony before him. The Mahler Seventh was scheduled to bring a robust conclusion to the evening.
The first movement of Mahler No. 7 lasts almost 25 minutes. It is an aerobics workout to wither the heartiest conductor. At the conclusion of the first movement, the trim Austrian was gasping for air. He took out his handkerchief and mopped a sweat-streaming brow. The Orchestra waited. The audience waited. Welser-Möst gathered himself, and we were back to the symphony.
With Mahler, even the spaces in between the music are dramatic.
It took many years before audiences began to warm to the expansive symphonies of Gustav Mahler. Taxing, unwieldy, overarching, overreaching, exhausting‹such is the critical language Mahler's work received during his own time, and to some extent, during our time as well. Rudolph Ganz was the first Saint Louis Symphony Music Director to conduct a Mahler symphony‹the Fourth, which was performed in 1923. The Fourth Symphony may be Mahler's most accessible work. It includes lovely melodies, joyful voices, and a soft, plaintive ending played on the harp. The daring Ganz, who introduced a number of 20th-century composers to St. Louis audiences, conducted the Fourth again in 1926. It should be noted, however, that Ganz's daring was not embraced, nor was his choice of Mahler. A community petition was circulated for Ganz's removal, and he resigned following the 1926-27 season.
It isn't so surprising, then, that other than a 1931 performance of the second movement of the Mahler Seventh by the great Georg Szell‹who, in his American debut, was guest conductor for a series of SLSO programs‹a Mahler symphony was not performed again by the Orchestra for 15 years.
The Mahler revival, which began in the orchestral world at the middle of the 20th century, coincided with the SLSO's own return to the problematic composer's work. Vladimir Golschmann apparently had gained enough trust from St. Louis audiences to conduct Symphony No. 1, "Titan," in 1946, after he had been Music Director for 15 years. Golschmann's selection of the "Titan," however, reveals a strategic marketing mind at work‹it is the shortest of the Mahler symphonies.
It was not until the mid-1960s, during Eleazar de Carvalho's tenure, that Mahler symphonies became a regular feature of the SLSO repertory. The Brazilian conductor led the Orchestra in the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Symphonies over six seasons, both as Music Director and Conductor Emeritus.
Still, the last romantic composer of the 20th century remains a tough sell, even in the 21st. The pejoratives launched at Mahler's work keep coming back again because they are never too far off the mark, especially when that work is in the hands of conductors who revel in the (seeming) formlessness of it. The symphonies of Mahler can be all those things‹unshapely, discordant, and overlong‹if they are allowed to be. It takes acute interpreters and a disciplined and versatile ensemble of musicians to pull it off. The SLSO has been blessed with both, and performances of Mahler have been memorable and poignant occasions at Powell Symphony Hall in recent years.
Here are just two examples. Mahler died with his Tenth Symphony left unfinished. A number of people have attempted to "complete" Mahler's last work, most significantly the English musicologist Deryck Cooke, whose version Walter Susskind conducted in 1969. In 1994 Leonard Slatkin chose to perform the United States' premiere of American composer Remo Mazzetti Jr.'s completion of Mahler's score. In characteristic fashion, Slatkin took the first half of the evening to describe to the audience what choices had been made in Mazzetti's revisions. The Orchestra would perform a phrase by Cooke, then by Mazzetti, and Slatkin would comment on the distinctions. Following this tutorial came intermission, and then the matter at hand. At 75 minutes, the Tenth was an exquisite feast, the drama of the work all that more evident because of Slatkin's exposition. Concertmaster David Halen rates the live recording of that concert to be among the SLSO's best.
In 2002, Hans Vonk gave his last concert at Powell Symphony Hall performing Mahler's Fourth Symphony. It had been a difficult season for the Music Director and for the musicians. Maestro Vonk had begun evidencing a restriction in his movement in the fall. In February, he was unable to complete a concert, and by April, realizing the serious nature of his condition, Vonk resigned his position as Music Director.
Yet there was one more concert, the Mahler Fourth, to conclude the season in May. Vonk conducted two performances of this demanding work, and appeared actually stronger on the second night. It was an exhibition of this remarkable musician's determination, will, and artistry. The evening ended with an outpouring of emotion from audience and musicians‹the kind of display for which Mahler, and perhaps only Mahler, was appropriate.
Former SLSO Music Director Jerzy Semkow returns to Powell Symphony Hall to conduct Mahler's Second Symphony, "Resurrection," April 16 and 17.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.