POSTED ON MARCH 21, 2012:
The Universe Settles in Downtown
Tulsa Symphony brings the power of Mahler
Here's the problem with writing the piece I'm about to write: accurately conveying just exactly who Gustav Mahler was and quite precisely what the big deal is about his third symphony. See, if you've heard it -- I mean really heard it -- you understand a. my conundrum and b. why I feel the need to accomplish the aforementioned accurate conveyance. But if you haven't heard it, then you're thinking, "What, it's classical music with violins and shit. What's the big deal?" And for thinking that, you will go to hell, because for one thing: it isn't classical music or even Classical music -- it's Romantic music. But anyway, here is your chance to learn exactly what it is I'm talking about.
Saturday, March 24, Tulsa Symphony (TS) presents The Universe in 90 Minutes. Yes, Mahler's Third often takes the better part of two hours. Under guest conductor Daniel Hege, TS will likely be taking some of the tempos of the six-movement work at a little brisker pace than usual, because to be honest, Mahler's Third is really a 100- to 110-minute work. And that's a whole lot of music.
So TS hooked you with that tempting title, and here you are in the third paragraph of my little blurb wondering when someone is going to mention space or galaxies or something otherwise related to your own connotations of the word "universe."
Hege, currently the conductor of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, has served as guest conductor for symphonies across the globe and he knows him some Mahler. And he makes a good case for the use of the U word.
"Mahler's music speaks to the carefree, the pure unadulterated joy in our lives. His Third Symphony is a triumph and takes us on a life's journey," he said. "And in a span of about 90 minutes."
To truly understand this, you really need to understand Romantic music (note the capital "R"). Romantic composers, and Mahler was one of the later ones, sought to express the inexpressible, to seek out universal truths and relate them to things that could not be said with words. Like Lord Byron and his Romantic poet running buddies, the Romantic artists in general sought to break the rules not just for the sake of breaking them (though that's among life's greatest pleasures), but for the sake of creating something never created before, of expressing something heretofore unexpressed. There was also their need to break the rules of the comparatively straight-laced Classical period that preceded the Romantic era. For a thorough demonstration of this progression from Classical to Romantic, see Beethoven's nine symphonies, and listen to them in order. By the ninth, he's expressing the inexpressible better than just about anyone.
Okay, screw the history lesson. Mahler's Third has six movements. Most symphonies have three. Sometimes four. Mahler's Third is written for a huge complement of musicians -- many more performers than pretty much any other major symphonic piece. Mahler's sprawling work seeks to explain the universe as a whole. He starts, in the powerful, bombastic first movement, with the Greek god Pan summoning inorganic matter to life. Mahler leads the listener through various forms of life, ending with the spiritual darkness of human life, the general lightness of the innocence of children and of heavenly life, and finally, the expression of God through love. This is pretty heady stuff.
Todd Cunningham, marketing director for TS, elaborated.
"Mahler said, 'A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything,' and that's where the whole universe thing comes into play," he said. So it seems, then, that calling an evening of Mahler's Third The Universe in 90 Minutes would find the composer smiling from wherever the afterlife might currently find him.
So why Mahler? Why now? Why Hege?
Well, TS functions on a model that is very different from that of nearly every other major symphony in the world. An artistic committee made up of TS players chooses repertoire and guest artists, and there isn't more than a handful of repeat conductors.
"We bring in conductors from all over the country," Cunningham said. "And Daniel is very talented. When a conductor comes in and works well with the symphony and has a great reputation, they like to have him back."
And so Hege returns to TS, a member of a long line of the organization's guest conductors.
"The musicians actually choose all the programs and decide what will and won't be performed," Cunningham said. Again, that's very different from most every symphony in the world.
So when TS needed to choose a conductor for The Universe in 90 Minutes, here comes Hege, who again waxed rhapsodic on a certain Austrian composer.
"The most important things to know about Mahler are the emotional richness and power that his music expresses," he said. "There is incredible variety and vividness of orchestral color and nuance from over-the-top bombast, to subtle, singing lines."
So this is shaping up to be a pretty awesome evening of music. But there's more, according to Cunningham.
"The really exciting about this is the collaboration," he said. "That's what we're always excited about at Tulsa Symphony. We play for the ballet, our musicians play for just about everybody."
And what a collaboration it is. Appearing with TS will be not one, not two, but three separate performing organizations -- all united under the Mahlerian flag. The Tulsa Oratorio Chorus, Tulsa Youth Opera and Tulsa Children's Chorus will all grace the TS stage, and will even be joined by featured soloist Lisa van der Ploeg, a mezzo-soprano who has already earned critical laurels for previous performances of this very work.
"I think the best thing is that it's going to be a great experience for the kids," Cunningham said. "I mean, how often do kids get to perform on the Chapman stage with a professional organization? Those opportunities are few and far between, not just in this community, but in any community."
The Tulsa Symphony presents The Universe in 90 Minutes at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St. Tickets are available at myticketoffice.com, by phone at 918-596-7111, or at the PAC box office.
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