Santa Cruz Symphony, Jan 24


By Scott MacClelland

ONE OF THE GENIUS composers at the turn of the 20th century who diverted the direction of Western cultivated music, Gustav Mahler, succumbed to heart disease 105 years ago at age 50. (Among the others were Debussy and Stravinsky.)

Mahler’s First Symphony—of 11, including Das Lied von der Erde and the unfinished Tenth—made the case for the force of his influence in its performance by the Santa Cruz Symphony on Sunday afternoon at Watsonville’s Mello Center. Daniel Stewart conducted the one-hour work from memory. The orchestra, augmented to 75 musicians, gave a thrilling if not flawless account of it.

The opening movement takes an inordinate amount of time to get underway, its high keening first violins setting a static tone that oddly establishes a sense of expectation. A few chirping bird songs from the woodwinds and a distant fanfare from three trumpets (from the back of the hall) enhanced anticipation. Finally, almost grudgingly, a rhythmic pulse begins to emerge. In what will turn out to be a radiant, joyful celebration of spring, the main melody comes literally from the second of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, “Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld” (I walked upon the fields this morning.) The cuckoo motif of a falling fourth fits nicely with the song even though real cuckoo calls drop by only a third.

Mahler originally envisioned the piece as a tone poem, but when he decided to turn it into a symphony he retained only a loose application of the classical sonata forms, and the various moods in each of the four movements—and the occasional full stop—left its original listeners confused and bewildered. Even today, anyone seeking to track those classic architectural features will find it a challenge. But the music itself, in all its colors, frequent counterpoint, and dynamic contrasts ranging from pianissimo to fortissimo, slathers its hearers with Technicolor spectacle.

While the opening movement does call for a repeat of its exposition, Mahler-disciple Bruno Walter omitted it as nothing better than a gratuitous nod to the classical sonata. This is a valid choice given that the piece doesn’t have a real second theme. As its exuberance unfolds it soon sinks back into the eerie opening. Dark clouds briefly obscure the sun. But it quickly returns to brilliant light and a boisterous finish.

The second movement, a scherzo with a trio section in the clear classical model, gives its A sections a pesante village dance, the B a graceful ländler. A melody on the violins added a lovely new dimension. In the return of the A section Stewart called for the pace to accelerate.

Soft timpani strokes opened the ‘radical’ third movement as a funeral march appears on solo double bass to the melody Bruder Martin or Frère Jacques, the old round known to kids everywhere. Only here it’s a dirge in the minor. Taken up by bassoon, then two cellos and again by tuba, it developed into a fugue. Mocking oboes served up a countersubject. Soon a klezmer band, then an organ grinder with a boom-chuck beat added the garish, turning the whole into a parody, both tragic and banal. Yet again a sweet melody would rise on the first violins. All these grotesque sound combinations could only reward the fiercely attentive. (I’m tempted to believe Charles Ives knew the music well.)

The long (20 minutes) final movement sounds more like a programmatic tone poem than a symphony movement, even though one can detect the classical sonata outlines. It starts with a shrieking cry of pain that begins a complex path toward a heroic finale in the form of a victory march. It includes a tender passage on the violins taken from the last of the Wayfarer songs, “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (The two blue eyes of my sweetheart), but seesaws into fortissimo explosions and suddenly back to the keening violins that opened the first movement. As it approaches the end it seems to lose momentum, but that is just another Mahler novelty. Notwithstanding a few technical glitches, noticeably among the eight horns, victory was at last won to the acclaim of cheers and a standing ovation.

I hope the spell cast by Mahler here spills over into future SC Symphony seasons.

Stewart opened the program with Edvard Grieg’s familiar Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. Though certainly worthy as concert music, Grieg did write a lot more music for orchestra than has probably ever been heard in the Monterey Bay area. (The Piano Concerto in A Minor, a better piece, does get its share of exposure.) But by returning to Norway, from studies in Germany and a stay at cosmopolitan Copenhagen, he found himself trapped in a folk-music fueled backwater and under pressure to compose “Norwegian” music. The flute that opened Morning was played by Laurie Camphouse, a last-minute sub. The tiny triangle in Anitra’s Dance while visible was virtually inaudible. Grieg grew to loath the last of the four movements, In the Hall of the Mountain King, and wrote that it so “reeks of cowpats, ultra-Norwegianism, and ‘to-thyself-be-enough-ness’ that I can’t bear to hear it.” It has long since become a cliché but at least once was an original.