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The Issue of Gustav Mahler and Orchestras

Gustav Mahler Photograph

mda: Another blog while sitting at Upland Tasting Room in Indianapolis.  So RBD and I (mda) had the great pleasure of hearing Mahler 2 by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra the other week.  First off, this is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music without a doubt.  I have a feeling RBD will agree with me on all accounts.  So before we discuss this issue, I would like to say a few words about the performance.  It was a great interpretation of the piece.  The conductor really took some liberties with the tempos, but I rather enjoyed it.  The choir was excellent…great interpretation of the vocal parts.

RBD: I do agree, mda, with your assessment of the performance by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. This is one of my favorite pieces as well. I remember hearing this as a Middle School student or young High Schooler with my Dad in St. Louis. I felt this time, as I did back then (about 20 years ago) from the opening lick, as if I began a journey. An epic journey! Mahler said that he felt that he needed to put the whole world into his symphonies. That is so true with Symphony #2!! Oh, mda, you mentioned an issue in your previous statement. What’s the issue my friend?

mda: Well I believe you and I were talking after the concert about how the orchestra performed Mahler and I mentioned something along the lines of “Mahler really displays the inconsistencies of an orchestra.”  That made me start thinking about Mahler as a whole.  Is there really a composer out there that consistently pushes the limits of the orchestra like Mahler?

RBD: That’s a good point. Mahler has EVERYTHING! A HUGE orchestra that has people playing the whole time, plus chorus. I can only imagine playing an entire season of classical to neo-classical music (plus Pops Concert after Pops Concert) and then have to play Mahler for a week!! It’s like thinking it’s no big deal to walk down the street to the store. It’s only a mile away after all. Not bad, until you realize the store is actually 3 miles away, uphill and it’s raining! You’re tired by the end of that walk!

mda: Well that is one way to put it.  It really is is an interesting thing to think about and discuss.  Mahler’s orchestras are typically larger than a typical orchestra, but the way he writes shows every little, minute detail of the orchestra makeup.  Each player is just as important as the principal of each section.  Now I realize that this isn’t just a ‘Mahler issue.’  However, it somehow presents itself more than most other composers.  Now RBD, since you are a musician who regularly performs in an orchestral setting do you feel you and other musicians prepare differently for Mahler? Obviously you do, but what are the differences?

Famous Mahler Silhouette

RBD: Well, I would say that most orchestral musicians actually prepare for Mahler. They prepare mentally and physically. If you look on the schedule and see “A Night With the Beatles” or “Pink Floyd Tribute”, you’ll probably not run up to the library and get the parts. BUT, you more than likely have the Mahler week down in your calendar. You already have the parts and you begin listening to the beast well in advance. If you’re lulled into a musical sleep by doing short, easy pieces for weeks on end, you have to get yourself back into condition to be able to play something as massive as Mahler. A giant piece like that does show flaws. There is so much going on all the time, that slip-ups are bound to happen, even with the best of the best. The better the orchestras the less noticeable the slip-ups, but I guarantee they are there.

mda: All good points, but we would like to hear from you out there.  Tell us what you think of this Mahler conundrum? What other conductors would you place in to this conundrum…maybe Shostakovich or Wagner?  Would you want to place Beethoven in this arena?  Tell us what you think!

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