From learning why Mahler was considered a “Master,” to understanding what’s involved in performing Mahler’s 5th symphony, take a look at our Q&A with CPO cellist Tom Mirhady about our “Masters” concert (music from Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Mahler) on May 9 & 10!

What Makes Mahler 5 unique?

Tom Mirhady: Of the nine symphonies  Mahler completed, numbers 1, 4 and 5 are the most often performed.  Part of the reason may have to do with their length.  Unlike the other six Mahler symphonies, they are all less than 70 minutes(!) long, which means that an orchestra can still have room on the program for a concerto with soloist, adding to the concert’s appeal to the ticket-buying public,  and send the audience home well  before 10:30.  Another reason may have to do with cost.  Some symphony orchestras larger than the CPO, like those of Toronto, Montreal or Chicago, (which is renowned for its Mahler performances), can mount Mahler 1, 4 or 5 without hiring many, if any additional musicians beyond those on full-time contract, so they do.  Even those large orchestras, though, would have to hire ‘extras’ for the other six symphonies.  For the CPO, which has a full-time complement sufficient for the symphonies of Tchaikovsky, Brahms or Dvorak, in order to cover all the parts Mahler put into the score for any of his symphonies we need to draw from Calgary’s excellent pool of freelance musicians.

So of those 3 relatively compact Mahler symphonies, the 5th,  at least from where I sit in the cello section, is the most virtuosic.  It’s an ‘extreme classic’, and would have been right at home in the Virtuosity Festival we did a couple seasons ago.  It has intensity and drama to spare, great tunes, lots of flashy finger work, a grand triumphant ending and the most tender slow movement, the famous Adagietto, you can imagine.  The symphony also opens with a famous, especially to trumpet players and people who hear them practise, trumpet solo.  This will be my fourth crack at the 5th.  The first time was also my first time playing a Mahler symphony, with the Edmonton Symphony conducted by Pierre Hétu, and it was an experience I’ll never forget, so the 5th is also unique for me personally.

 The CPO is performing Mahler’s Symphonies in order – with this coming season featuring Mahler 6. What makes Mahler 5 different from Mahler 6?  

Just looking at the specs, the 5th is shorter, 68 minutes vs 79 minutes for the 6th.  The CPO will need around 10 additional extra players for the 5th, and around 25 for the 6th, so it’s safe to say the 6th is a bigger piece.  The 5th is big, but the 6th might be called Brobdingnagian.

One of the well known features of the 6th is the giant hammer that is thrown against a big wooden box a few times in the last movement.  The 6th also has spatial elements, where there  are passages where bells are placed offstage to create a distant effect.  The 5th has neither hammer nor offstage effects.  Though the 6th was first performed in 1906, Mahler never conducted it at the New York Philharmonic while he was Music Director there 1909-1911.  They had to wait until 1947 to play it and followed it on the program with Gershwin’s Piano Concerto, played by Oscar Levant.  Our Mahler 6 will have Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto on the program, played by one of the top pianists performing today, Stephen Hough.

If you’re new to Mahler, there’s no better symphony to start with than the 5th, so come to the 5th, then next season come to the 6th!

This concert is called “The Masters.” Why was Mahler considered a “Master?”

That’s a really big question.  Sometimes these concert titles have a lot to do with alliteration: Mozart, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Masters.  Of course they are all part of the pantheon of great composers but what sets Mahler apart is his intimate knowledge of the large symphony orchestra.  He was a child prodigy at the piano but never seemed to be intent on career as a concert pianist.  Rather, his entire professional career he was a conductor, starting at age 20 in small opera houses in the German speaking world and working his way up to the plum jobs in Vienna and later New York.  He would compose mainly in the off season.  He knew the operatic repertoire inside-out, especially Wagner, and just what a virtuoso symphony or opera orchestra was capable of. 

His music may be more popular today than it has ever been.  Here’s a quote from Time Magazine in 1960 – “When Gustav Mahler stepped down from the podium one evening in 1895 after conducting the first full performance of his Second Symphony, the Berlin audience was hostile, and the critics fumed about “the cynical impudence of this brutal music maker.” The response was characteristic of most Mahler premières. Venerated by a handful of his fellow musicians, Mahler was misunderstood by his public and despised as a martinet by the singers and players who performed under his baton. Now, in the centennial year of his birth, the musical world is taking a fresh look…”  This wouldn’t be written today because his music is firmly in the repertoire. 

The Adagietto has become known for being in Death in Venice. What is it about this piece of music that makes it stand out?

In contrast to the rest of the symphony, the Adagietto is just strings and harp – no winds or percussion.  Moment to moment it’s just incredibly beautiful.  Here’s a quote from Wikipedia that pretty much describes the feeling I get listening to the Adagietto –   “Sehnsucht is a German noun translated as “longing”, “yearning”, or “craving”, or in a wider sense a type of “intensely missing”. However, Sehnsucht is difficult to translate adequately and describes a deep emotional state.  Not wanting to be too analytical, there are a number of spots in the music where the musical line is obviously going somewhere, but Mahler likes to delay the arrival moment, prolonging the sense of suspension.  Here’s a Mahler quote – “If you think you’re boring your audience, go slower not faster.”

Classical repertoire like the Adagietto and Also Sprach Zarathustra have become part of popular culture. What qualities about classical music do you think allow for this type of impact?

The question might rather be: what qualities in music were some film directors seeking for certain scenes that made classical music the most appropriate choice?  One could certainly dispute this, but I’d say they were often looking for a something meditative, where the viewer is invited to experience  the inner feelings of the character on the screen, and choosing classical music has the ability to connect those feelings to something shared and universal, which is maybe the answer you were looking for.  Then they would look for something that is very direct and easily identifiable, a good hook, in the language of popular music, and the movie has to be successful.

It’s interesting that Youtube has made anyone with a recordings collection and some home videos or photos into that film director.  So when you look for recordings of classical pieces on Youtube, you often run across some evocative visuals to go with the pieces.