Santa Cruz Symphony’s Mahler 5

By Scott MacClelland

ON JANUARY 20, the day after the San Francisco 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers in the NFL postseason playoffs, ticket sales for the Santa Cruz Symphony’s performance last Sunday in Watsonville hit a wall. Symphony executive director Dorothy Wise knew instantly that the 54th Super Bowl would hammer attendance at their ambitious performance of Gustav Mahler’s sprawling, 75-minute Fifth Symphony.

Indeed, the Super Bowl did diminish attendance at the Mello Center, but the crowd on hand looked far more robust than Wise might have feared—less than five percent down from the usual sell-out audiences I guestimate. And the Super Bowl wasn’t the only competition; the thrilling men’s final at the Australian Open between Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem, in its repeat telecast for local fans, further challenged the Symphony’s matinee.

Since this great Mahler masterpiece had never been played here, it might have been smart to choose another weekend for its Monterey Bay debut. There must have been many in the audience who had never before heard this Fifth Symphony and, likely, would have been amazed at how large an orchestra it required—about 80 musicians according to the program booklet insert.

Because the work is so large—five movements—and complex, the intermission was set between the second and third movements. That makes sense since the symphony falls into three distinct sections. (The Scherzo third movement establishes a strong demarcation between the first two and the last two.)

After the ominous bugle call on solo trumpet that begins the symphony and the orchestra explosion that follows, the haunting funeral march melody processes throughout the movement like a spine, with a variety of dramatic outbursts of anguish and grief. The orchestral fabric is a virtual tapestry of woven themes and, for Mahler, unprecedented counterpoint. The following movement likewise is grounded by a modified version of the funeral march, but now with vehement gnashing of teeth and cackling woodwinds that mock the march. Some of the winds raise their bells trumpet-like to cut through the orchestral tumult. Percussion, especially the tam-tam, added an entire range of colors on its own. Yet another seed was planted in both movements, a glimmer of ultimate relief from despair that would, ultimately, punctuate the rondo finale of the entire symphony.

The first two movements ended quietly, leaving the audience after the second unsure how to react—with enthusiasm or bewilderment, or both. Even those who were familiar with the piece had likely not heard it for a long time.

The Scherzo, like any classical scherzo, follows the conventional 3/4 time—more Austrian ländler than waltz—and A-B-A form. Or was it? In this case, the A is a boisterous and jovial affair that makes extraordinary demands on the solo horn—it’s a virtual concerto—while the B goes into dark circumspection, complete with chamber music for a small contingent of pizzicato strings and croaking bassoon. Yet the line between them is blurred until the leaping horn figure from the beginning suddenly restores full sunshine.

Daniel Stewart, who conducted from memory, is on a quest to revive Mahler masterpieces to their rightful place in the regional symphonic repertoire. He took an extra moment before beginning the Adagietto, for strings and solo harp, a piece that has been excerpted; though a loving valentine to the composer’s wife Alma, it has done duty as a memorial, somehow working perfectly in both contexts. (Leonard Bernstein conducted it in memory of Robert Kennedy in New York.) Slyly, Mahler quotes from his own Rückert song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.         

Then, immediately, the final Rondo, a form rarely used in a symphony, yet a sensational piece of fun and joy, quoting a satirical song from the composer’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn song-cycle, and so shot through with counterpoint as to boggle the mind. Here, tunes and turns from the previous movements run riot. The audience response showed no doubt or hesitation.

Fastidiously composed as it is, Mahler’s music, not least the symphonies, invites wide interpretive latitude, even distortion. He released his disciples—the conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer—to ‘make it sound good.’ On his journey, Stewart should give himself more of that latitude, to intensify the dynamic and temporal contrasts. In Daniele Gatti’s recording by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of the Fifth Symphony, in the second movement when the orchestra comes to a full stop and, over pianissimo timpani, the cellos play a desolate, almost aimless melody, Gatti slows the tempo to a demoralized crawl and keeps the dynamic at pianissimo, until the clarinet enters and begins to rediscover the funeral march again. It is totally convincing, a revelation. Mahler can take it, just as JS Bach can take it. (At the time, Mahler was suddenly deeply immersed in Bach.) I hope—no, I’m sure—Stewart will return to Mahler’s score in the future and discover more of its gravitational stretches and squeezes, its celestial diamonds.

As for the orchestra, it should feel tremendous pride for setting its own bar high above its previous level. The many solos large and small deserve praise, especially trumpeter Matthew Ebisuzaki, hornist Caitlyn Smith Franklin, violinist Nigel Armstrong, oboist Benny Cottone, flutist Sarah Benton, clarinetist Karen Sremac, tubaist Forrest Byram and all the rest. The 49ers would like to forget the 54th Super Bowl. But I, for one, will not forget Mahler 5 at the Mello in Watsonville. SM