Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Symphony No.6 in A Minor "Tragic"

Sergiu Comissiona, Conductor

The Orpheum

Saturday February 13, 1999 at the Orpheum

by Roxanne Davies

Gustav Mahler, if he were alive today, would probably appreciate the message behind the lovely Italian film "Life is Beautiful" which recounts the story of a father and son and their struggle in a concentration camp during World War II. Regardless of the horrors surrounding them, the father attempts to shelter his son from the reality they are facing by making their life into a game. Tears of laughter are just as quickly replaced by the bitter tears of sadness.

Mahler's majestic symphony No 6 is a serious composition which imagines the fundamental human emotions and man's ability to cope with fate. It is a composition of opposites. Joyful exuberance is followed by crushing sadness. There are moments of light joyfulness with a sombre recognition of fate. Mahler was able to put life's struggle into music. Living life in the minor key means being prepared to recognize its ultimate tragedy.

Although Mahler died in the first decade of the 20th century, he is considered one of the greatest of 20th century composers. He prefigured atonality, the breaking up of the tonal system.. It was as if he was anticipating the break up of European society after the First World War. Composers like Arnold Shonberg carried on the form of expressionistic music.

For the audience which had the pleasure of hearing this magnificent symphony in its entirety, it was not so much a concert as a music experience of the highest order, and the Vancouver Symphony was up to the task both in technique and steady nerves to accomplish the strenuous feat, in particular the thirty minute finale. The usual complement of 74 was enlarged to 98 players. The two concert harps seemed perched on the very edge of the stage.

Mahler is one of Maestro Comissiona's favorite composers and it was obvious that he took on the role of commander of the vast orchestra with a masterful zeal. He did not conduct the orchestra so much as become a vessel of the music and a channel for its grandeur.

In the pre-concert talk, Michael Wall, the French horn player, explained that "some of us tend to measure time by Mahler. We usually play Mahler only once a year." The last time the VSO played Mahler's Sixth was on September 30, 1986. It is an introspective piece that is best placed midway through the season and never as a season opener.

Mahler is also beloved by French horn players, Wall explained, because he composed music which allow the horn players to play their instruments the way they believe they should be played. It challenges all of the musicians to the nth degree and is so well written that all the musicians look forward to playing it. It also contains a cow bell which one hears in the distance, reminiscent of the "dreams" of youth and high, alpine pastures. The symphony also contains the first orchestral use of the xylophone.

Mahler was not only a composer but also a conductor of the highest order, setting the standard in conducting. He wrote nine symphonies and was working on his 10th when he died at the relatively young age of 51. Symphony No. 6 contains four different themes. The first movement is an energetic march-like Allegro, followed by the lively dance or Scherzo. The third movement is the slow, romantic Andante, and the finale is a moderate Allegro, during which one hears most of the themes which had been introduced in the prior three movements. Although Mahler originally wrote the piece to have the dance movement as the third movement, towards the end of his life he changed his mind and we heard the piece with the dance movement in the second and most rightful second movement. The overall impact of the symphony is stronger when the dance is in that sequence.

The music the VSO created for us was as loud as I've ever heard a violin, oboe and flute play.The music was also the most sweet and poignant and I found tears flowing down my face during the third movement, the Andante, which Mahler composed for his beloved wife, Alma.

For those who keep track of such things, the VSO rendition of Mahler's 6th on this evening was the two-hammer-blow version although, apparently there is a three hammer one out there somewhere. Mahler composed the piece with the inclusion of a non-metallic thud, and this was accomplished with an enormous maple and ash hammer swung by Vern Griffiths, Principal Percussionist. I found two ominous thuds of the blow of fate as it makes its sinister entry into the lovely music quite enough for my delicate sensibility.

After a moment of silence at the end of the concert, the audience erupted into applause. Vancouver audiences are so polite and reserved. There was only one loud audible bravo. If this was the Italy of Roberto Benigni, the main character of Life is Beautiful, the audience would have been yelling and crying its praise.

Maestro Comissiona came out for several curtain calls and very graciously acknowledged each section of the orchestra, which stood as he gestured towards them to take their well deserved bows for an extraordinary musical performance.