Corvallis-OSU Symphony tackles Mahler’s 10th Symphony

by | May 23, 2022 | Arts and Entertainment | 0 comments

The story behind Gustav Mahler’s 10th Symphony could be a movie, but there’s a problem: The story behind this symphony is so wild, moviegoers might not believe it.

So maybe it’s a good thing that Tuesday’s performance of the Corvallis-OSU Symphony Orchestra just focuses on the music.

Besides, the orchestra – and its conductor, Marlan Carlson – are working on a storyline of their own. Tuesday’s performance marks the eighth Mahler symphony the orchestra has performed under Carlson’s baton, dating back to 1999. In the 2022-23 season, Carlson plans to conduct Mahler’s Fourth. That will leave only the Eighth, which Carlson believes is simply “too monstrous” to perform in Corvallis: “We don’t have the musical forces, or the space,” he said in an email interview.

As it is, though, the 10th is still a mammoth production. Given his druthers, Carlson would have jammed 120 or so performers into The LaSells Stewart Center for this concert (he’s done that before, for other Mahler pieces), but COVID has played havoc with those plans – and it didn’t help when the Eugene Symphony rescheduled a canceled concert for the same day as this concert by the Corvallis ensemble, a decision that “takes away some of the usual players,” Carlson said.

Mahler started his 10th symphony in July 1910 but had not finished the orchestral draft by the time of his death the following year. He had completed 72 pages of full score, 50 or so pages of so-called “short-score” drafts and 44 pages of preliminary drafts and sketches. “A lot of this symphony is based on the skimpiest of sketches,” Carlson said.

And we’ll get to that.

When Mahler was working on the symphony, it’s fair to say he had a lot on his mind. He believed he had a failing heart. His young wife, Alma, had been having an affair with a famed architect, Walter Gropius. (Alma Mahler did marry Gropius in 1915, but the two divorced in 1920.) Gustav Mahler sought counseling from none other than Sigmund Freud. And Mahler scrawled notes to Alma on the pages of the 10th symphony: On the very last page, he wrote “für dich leben! für dich sterben!” (“To live for you! To die for you!”) and the exclamation “Almschi!” – his nickname for Alma.

After Mahler’s death, various composers tried their hands at fleshing out the symphony, based on those “skimpy sketches” he had left behind. In 1959, a British musician and Mahler expert named Deryck Cooke started work on a realization of the entire symphony. A still-incomplete version by Cooke debuted in 1960, the centenary of Mahler’s birth.

Not everybody liked it. In fact, Alma Mahler – who was still alive 50 years after Mahler started work on the symphony – joined other prominent musicians in calling for a ban on performances of Cooke’s version. But Cooke kept at it, and eventually showed her a revised version that persuaded her to change her mind about the ban. The full work premiered in 1964. Cooke and colleagues made a handful of revisions to their work throughout the years, and the version that the Corvallis-OSU Symphony is performing Tuesday night is known as “Cooke III,” printed in 1989.

A handful of conductors over the years – Georg Solti, for example – made a point of not including the 10th symphony in their repertoire, arguing that the work was incomplete. Other conductors have chosen to perform only the portions of the work that scholars believe Mahler himself finished and orchestrated.

Carlson isn’t buying into any of that.

“I’m not one to stand on principle when there’s a most interesting and complex piece of music out there that has drawn the attention of a good many conductors and critics well above my pay grade,” he said.

And it’s a work that challenges both Carlson and the musicians under his baton – in particular the first scherzo in the second movement, with “its very odd multimeter organization,” he said. “It is unique in all of Mahler’s symphonies.”

But it’s all part of tackling the work of Mahler, and so the challenge is worthwhile. “For me, as well as many other symphony conductors (and other musicians and critics), Mahler’s symphonies represent not only the culmination of the 19th century Romantic style in music, but the culmination of composition for the symphony going back really to the late 1600s or so,” Carlson said. “Besides, they are wonderfully complex works in so many dimensions.”

Tuesday’s concert features another work as well, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, featuring Christopher Yoon on piano. Yoon is an OSU student who’s majoring in engineering with plans to go to dental school. Carlson said Yoon also is “a very fine cello player who payed the first movement of the Elgar Concerto with our orchestra. He’s probably the only student who performed concertos with our orchestra on two different instruments.”

If You Go

What: The Corvallis-OSU Symphony Orchestra in concert.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 24.

Where: The LaSells Stewart Center, 875 SW 26th St., on the Oregon State University campus.

How much: Tickets are $26 in advance and can be purchased by clicking here.

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