What auditory force could compel scores of volunteer musicians to turn out on a weeknight and tackle a challenging work by a notoriously picky composer, with no actual concert date in sight? On a chilly night this spring dozens of performers, amateur and pro, gathered in the arch-roofed Elley-Long Center to play through the second symphony of fin de siècle composer Gustav Mahler. I was one of them. Wanting to know what kind of music could inspire this degree of dedication, I'd signed up for the flute section.
Nicknamed "The Resurrection," the piece started off with the funeral of the character introduced in Mahler's Symphony No. 1.
"Right here, we're imagining a happy episode in the life of the hero we've just buried," quipped conductor Troy Peters of the Vermont Youth Orchestra. True enough, the happy, wandering melody of the second movement evokes a walk amid Alpine wildflowers. Peters enlivened the three-hour run-through with anecdotes about Mahler and his discernable intentions, and noteworthy performances of the music. After a particularly ominous and heavy passage that could stand to be played with a bit more gravitas, he paused. "Think Star Wars, people!" We ran through it again, this time giving the chords a weight worthy of Imperial Stormtroopers.
Mahler's' music is heavy stuff, beautifully intense, and made more poignant by Peters' narrative. The fifth and final movement details the end of the world, including an off-stage group of horns that simulate the last trumpet. A solo flute portrays the world's last living thing, a lone songbird, which then falls silent. Into that break, a heavenly chorus begins singing, eventually rejoining the orchestra. Like me, many players had picked up the music for their part in advance. But as only a so-so flutist, I knew when not to play, and decided to join the 30-member chorus for the second half.
After the final measure, everyone let out a deep sigh of satisfaction, and then Peters said, "Let's do that last part again -- just because we can." After the last note faded once again, orchestra members and choristers burst out clapping.
The March 22 reading was part of a semi-annual series run by the Green Mountain Mahler Festival, an organization devoted to promoting the performance and enjoyment of works by the charismatic Bohemian-Austrian opera conductor and composer, who lived from 1860 to 1911. Mahler wrote several song cycles and nine complete symphonies, plus his unfinished 10th, before dying suddenly of a virus at age 51. He is credited as one of the first composers to blend chorus and symphony.
More often, though, he's associated with size -- the bigger, the better. Mahler's works are lavishly orchestrated for large numbers of performers, which can put them outside the reach of most community orchestras. Intricate pianissimo sections are interspersed with bombastic bits that require a solid wall of sound. As Peters noted during the reading, at the judgment-day trumpet section, "Mahler literally calls for 'as many horns as possible.'"
Most formal symphonies opt for scaled-back orchestrations -- the Vermont Symphony Orchestra recently performed the second symphony in this way. "For example, do you really need eight basses when you can get by with four, or can you cut out the E-flat clarinet? " asks Green Mountain Mahler Festival organizer Dan Weiss. "Sure. But because we don't have the same budgetary constraints, we don't have to do that. We can have as big an orchestra as we can field, and as big a chorus . . . that's one way of taking Mahler to the extreme."
Weiss acknowledges that the composer's ostentatious scale isn't for everyone, and that some find his style schmaltzy. "You either love Mahler or you just don't care for him. There's very little middle ground," he says. "But most people I come in contact with through the festival tend to lean toward liking Mahler."
A University of Vermont research physician and proficient double-bassist, Weiss describes his first encounter with Mahler as a near-mystical experience: "Back in college, when I first heard a Mahler symphony, it blew me away. And after that, it was just trying to find out who was writing this incredible music and how I could play it."
That decades-long drive has taken concrete shape: Weiss lived in Seattle for 10 years and played in a number of community orchestras and musical groups there. "I wanted to do Mahler symphonies, but the individual community groups, by and large, didn't have the resources to pull together a hundred-plus musicians." That's the minimal number needed for most of the composer's high-wattage works, in the opinion of many Mahler fans.
Weiss instituted a series of symphony open readings in 1995. The series was so successful that a formal concert was added to the roster the following year, and the group incorporated as the Northwest Mahler Festival. The nonprofit has been going strong for 10 years, and even releases a CD series of its seasonal offerings. The fest draws musicians from the Seattle Symphony and on down the scale to talented students, with a focus on "big, huge, romantic works that usually don't get performed that often," says Weiss.
That's often the Mahler symphonies, but NWMF readings and concerts have also included symphonies by Shostakovich and Bruckner, and Strauss tone poems. As the founder and president emeritus, Weiss still serves on the board of trustees and makes summer trips back to the West Coast to participate. When he moved to Vermont in 2001, he hoped to recreate the experience with a sister organization.
But finding enough musicians in Vermont proved challenging. The greater Seattle area supports at least 30 community orchestras, plus a strong public school music program and large youth orchestra system. Given the difference in population density, says Weiss, "It's tougher to pull together the numbers sometimes."
Despite this obstacle, the buzz is building. Over the past four years, the Green Mountain Mahler Festival has hosted readings for Mahler symphonies 1 through 7, each led by a different area conductor. The 100-plus singers and instrumentalists who showed up for the March session ranged from teens in high school ensembles and the VYO to pro players from Vermont Symphony. At least that many are expected to turn out for a June 20 redux of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, again conducted by Troy Peters. Local sopranos Wendy Hoffman Farrell and Shyla Nelson are scheduled to sing as well.
In these "readings," everyone wins: Conductors get a chance to work with a massed orchestra on a piece they're rarely able to perform, and participants Weiss calls "serious avocational musicians" get to exercise their classical chops. He doesn't want to scare away potential performers, but stresses that musical competence is a must. "The best part is that this is all done for the love of music," Weiss says. "No one gets paid, and we don't charge a fee, either." One current mission is to spread the word among area choristers, who seem a tad more skittish about sight-reading, or are perhaps wary of waiting through the orchestral sections.
Eventually, Weiss would like to offer free public concerts as part of the GMFF, as the Seattle group does. His dream performance? "Mahler's 8th -- the Symphony of a Thousand." The work requires a huge orchestra, with many extra players, eight vocal soloists, two large choruses and a children's chorus. The symphony did, in fact, premiere with a thousand musicians, though the Northwest Mahler Festival managed to perform the piece in 2000 with a mere 350. Asked what venue he would hope to use, Weiss, like Mahler, thinks big. "Well, the acoustics are wrong, but maybe Gutterson Arena at UVM. Something on that scale." A suitable spot, perhaps, for lofty goals.