A Nonconformist Mahler Symphony Makes a Memorable Season Closer

United StatesUnited States Mahler: Oregon Symphony Orchestra / Carlos Kalmar (conductor), Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, 19.5.2018. (ZC)

Mahler – Symphony No.7

Probably the least known among Mahler’s nine completed symphonies, and most certainly one of the least performed, the Seventh is the work that the Oregon Symphony, under the deft direction of music director Carlos Kalmar, chose to close out the 2017-2018 concert season. Their performance brought light and heft to what is widely considered Mahler’s most-overlooked contribution to the symphonic tradition.

Mahler’s Seventh is not his longest, nor his largest or most exciting. The symphony is set in five largely independent, and at times conflicting, movements. He composed each largely autonomously of the others and left no discernable musical program to guide listeners. The extra-musical, juicy, doom-laden biographical material, so prominent in some of the composer’s other symphonic works, is thin in the Seventh. While other symphonies are consumed with the consequences of mortality, this one concludes under jubilantly clear, sunny skies. Added together, these quirks conspire to make the Seventh Mahler’s forgotten symphony — the nonconformist among a nonconformist’s interpretation of the sacred symphonic form — yearning, conflicted, and genius.

Despite the difficulty in pigeonholing it, the Seventh is surprisingly straightforward, and remarkably symmetrical. A mysterious, brooding first movement and an energetic, Rondo finale bookend the three meaty inner sections: a twisted Scherzo in the middle, flanked on either end by two Nachtmusik (‘night music’) movements.

Kalmar and the orchestra opened with hazy mystery, thanks to an evocative euphonium solo from Demondrae Thurman, a professor of music performance at Samford University in Alabama. His creamy tone and rounded phrasing lured the audience into Mahler’s dreamy soundscape. But the ethereal opening soon transforms into a more familiar march which, with steadiness and rhythmic snap applied under Kalmar’s baton, gave the opening a sense of tortured momentum.

The fourth movement, the second of two Nachtmusik sections, also featured unique solos. Peter Frajola, the orchestra’s associate concertmaster, traded in his violin for the guitar, while Kenji Bunch set aside his viola (and composer’s pen) and joined on the mandolin. Mahler marked the movement Andante amoroso — ’amorous’ — and it unfolds slowly with touches of romance. Frajola and Bunch, seated on opposite sides of the stage, essentially serenaded one other. Their affectionate playing softened hearts while adding unfamiliar orchestral color and depth.

In his pre-concert talk, Kalmar noted his early affection for the Seventh. This affection came through in the beautiful rendering of the second movement. The inner details which are so important to the overall effect were given care and attention. And in the conductor’s hands, who balanced the competing elements, the middle scherzo came across as more than a nightmare, but a natural bridge to the rest of the work.

Last year the orchestra closed out its season with Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, in an emotionally wrought, virtuosic turn that justifiably brought the audience to their feet. The Seventh was a much different assignment—and much more difficult. Kalmar and the players had to do more than simply throw themselves into Mahler’s sometimes hysterical, often puzzling, and always challenging world. The sizzle of the outer movements needed to be balanced with warmth in the inner ones. Detail and color had to be supported with purposeful conducting.

But Kalmar and the musicians were up to the task. They essentially transformed what could be Mahler’s most confusing creation into his most poetic—a fitting end to a successful season.

Zach Carstensen

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