Maestro Marlan Carlson of the Corvallis-OSU Symphony Orchestra continues his relentless march through the massive symphonic output of Gustav Mahler.
Monday at the LaSells Stewart Center, the orchestra takes on Mahler’s 9th, the last symphony he finished before dying of heart problems at the age of 50 in 1911. Mahler also left an unfinished 10th.
Carlson will cram more than 110 players onto the stage in an 85- to 90-minute no-intermission show that requires “phalanxes” of horns, flute and piccolo, bassoon and contra bassoon.
The 9th will be the seventh Mahler symphony that Carlson has mounted, with six of them since 2011 (the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th). In fact, more than 25 orchestra players have been with Carlson for the past six (see information box for the list). Carlson, who has led the orchestra for 34 seasons and has been teaching at OSU for 50 years, also conducted Mahler’s 1st back in the 1980s.
Carlson said it would have been impossible to do the 9th earlier.
“It’s the culmination of Mahler’s symphonic output,” said Carlson, who spent 16 to 18 months studying the score. “It’s a compilation of everything that has come before. I’m so glad we did not tackle the 9th until now. We just didn’t have that understanding of the Mahler experience.”
The 9th, which did not makes its debut until 1912, after Mahler had died, is a complicated, unorthodox piece. Its first and fourth movements are massive, more than 25 minutes apiece, and Mahler goes counter to symphonic tradition by writing them for slower tempos than the peppier second and third movements.
It’s also a symphony in which each movement is played in a different key, which Carlson says poses challenges for his players.
“You can be in one key and three measures later we’re in a different key,” Carlson said. “Where is our tonal center of gravity? You really have to struggle where players are in terms of tonality.”
Carlson then moves from his desk to the piano in his Community Hall (formerly Benton Hall) office and demonstrates how one of the familiar themes of the piece is repeated, but at different tempos.
Mahler also was known for putting precise notations on the scores that established how he wanted players to approach the music. Carlson showed a multipage list that includes translations of the Mahler directives from the original German. At times in the 9th players are urged to play with the “utmost intensity” or “with the utmost violence.”
“This is the most modern music of all his symphonies,” Carlson said. “Some call it his ‘death symphony.’ His beloved daughter has died. He has received the diagnosis of the heart trouble that will eventually kill him. But we were also coming to the end of an era.
“The musical currents were changing rapidly. Mahler had a sixth sense that the world he had known was coming to an end. The end of the Hapsburg empire and czarist Russia. He sensed an underlying tension that was going to shatter the world he knew.
“But he also knew that death is part of the nature of things. That is the cycle of life. And this symphony is in no way a lamentation."