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[whitespace] Simple Yet Profound

Life's big questions were answered in SJ Symphony's Mahler concert

By Scott MacClelland

IN HIS FIRST four symphonies, Gustav Mahler tried to reinvent childhood, big-time. The largest of them, the sprawling third symphony, played last weekend by the San Jose Symphony, unfolds a grandiose pageant that seeks to explain the meaning of life in terms a child can understand. A child envisioned by a megalomaniac, of course. The work's intimidating scope--six richly constructed movements lasting a full 100 minutes--would make anyone feel like a child.

In fact, there seemed to be an unusual number of children, as young as five or six, accompanying their parents to this event. And why not? Despite the demands Mahler makes on one's attention span, the movements were originally fashioned around such simple profundities as: What the flowers of the meadow tell me; what the animals in the forest tell me; what man tells me; what the angels tell me; what love tells me. In like kind, Mahler uses an immense orchestra but often writes the most intimate music.

In providing corporate sponsorship for this production, Applied Materials President Dan Maydan wanted to honor his late wife, Dalia, by celebrating her tireless dedication to "the intersection of art, science and the human spirit." Under the collective title Legacy of Ideas, a special brochure was circulated with the concert program, while a graphic display on the life of Albert Einstein (borrowed from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem) was hung along the foyer walls.

Mahler's Third is nothing if not life-affirming. From its heroic opening fanfare (played by nine unison horns) to its final cadence with all forces blaring, windows continually open on new, vividly colored vistas.

The kaleidoscopic first movement, lasting more than half an hour, remains the most complex. Titled Pan Awakes; Summer Marches In, it begins with a paraphrase of the big string melody from the final movement of Brahms' First Symphony, then subsides into a growling undercurrent on low strings and drums, punctuated by snarling trumpets. In actual fact, it subscribes to the classical sonata form used by (among many others) Beethoven, whose entire Fifth Symphony takes less time to perform. But this Mahler movement is a bacchanal, an orgy of symphonic distortion as menacing as it is exhilarating.

Yes, the world of nature and myth is a scary place. The nine horns declare that Pan is a powerful and dangerous god. With that reminder, Mahler makes us all children in his playground and leads us in an innocence quest to learn the ways of the great world until at last we come to understand love.

Along the way, we encounter an orchestra of extraordinary colors and effects, not least for the weight of doubled and tripled winds and brass. From delicate solos and chamber music to volcanic eruptions, Mahler's world of sound (like Berlioz' which preceded it) is a Technicolor movie without the visuals.

The solo trombone imparts a strange stentorian loneliness. The solo posthorn floats a note of comfort from a distance. The second and third movements dance. The fourth broods in darkness as the contralto voice intones words of warning from Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra. In the fifth, a chorus of women and boys sings a brief verse about the angels from The Youth's Magic Horn, that wellspring of Mahler's obsession with innocence. The finale lies deep in the lush sonority of strings, an all-enveloping embrace of love that, to Mahler, becomes synonymous with God.

On the podium, Leonid Grin deigned to serve as tour guide, the Dante to Mahler's divine comedy. As the occasion was piled high with daunting challenges of vision, design and phrase, Grin rose with the occasion. His realization was of a piece, shapely and integrated, breathing the breath of life yet deliberate in purpose. His troops followed his lead with unity and confidence.

The enlarged orchestra generated a mighty roar or an intimate whisper as asked. There have been bigger conceptions of the egoistic variety--and not a few productions that seemed to miss the point entirely. Not so here. This was not Mahler's Third as in a vacuum but rather with an understanding of the overall Mahlerian context. There can be little doubt that many in the audience had never before heard the work in live performance. But they certainly got it, and responded with enthusiasm.

Veteran mezzo-soprano Claudine Carlson gave weight and authority to Nietzsche's words, while the women of San Jose State University Chorale and the Ragazzi boys chorus made angelic in their small moment. A preconcert announcement ended with a reminder to silence cell phones, and the audience sent back a wave of approving applause. This time the request was honored.

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From the May 17-23, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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