Mahler’s unfettered genius

After nearly two years in the doldrums live music began to be heard this past summer when the Cincinnati Opera brought three popular stage works to the Queen City in out of doors performances, and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra then ended their Summermusik lineup at the end of August. Now the College Conservatory of Music began its concert series with a symphonic concert on Friday evening.

The Philharmonia Orchestra program began auspiciously with an energetic reading of Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst, an intriguing and brief piece made to give the string section a true workout.

Montgomery’s Starburst was followed by Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, a work composed as a tribute to the University of Breslau, which awarded Brahms an honorary doctorate in philosophy. The familiar work was afforded the orchestra an opportunity to give an elegant performance. Maestro Mark Gibson conducted with fastidious attention to dynamics and instrumental details.

The program continued with Mahler’s first symphony, written when in his twenties and not yet a famous composer but a newcomer to conducting. The often called the Titan bears the musical DNA of its composer in each of its four movements. There is a seldom used underlying program with titles that make the symphony closer to –in Mahler’s words – a tone poem in symphonic form rather than a traditional four-movement symphonic work.

In the opening movement there are sounds that imitate nature, there is the use of a folk-like song melody – “Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld“- that Mahler would later use in Songs of a Wayfarer.  There are sudden, even abrupt changes of mood, from a tonally ambiguous opening to a lively section, and on to what Mahler then describes in his tempo markings as  Langsam, schleppend (Slowly, dragging) and Sehr gemächlich (very restrained), both sections not yet utterly dark, a mood the composer saves for quite later. There are hints of fanfare music coming as if from a distance. A lesser talent would have been accused of throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. I call it unfettered genius.

The linked second and third movements are deceiving as they begin at a happy clip with the French horns intensely at work, following the composer’s indications: Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (moving purposely, though not too fast), and later an unpredictable change comes when a peasant dance in ¾ time breaks in. And then a ditty – Frére Jacques – is heard in a solo string bass riff that is passed back and forth from the bass to the woodwinds presaging melancholy in a minor key.

Stürmisch bewegt – Energisch (Stormy…agitated…energetic) is the mood of the final movement, with occasional tonal ambiguities and thundering outbursts of the percussion 

Mahler hinted at some of what he felt as he penned this antithesis to pure music by writing comments he appended to his score: “… from the days of youth… Spring and no end… Human Comedy… Funeral March… from Hell to Paradise… a wounded heart…” All of these are intensely emotional stages that give shape to the capricious musical twists and turns of this great first symphony.

At one point I counted nearly eighty players on stage, whose sound – massive in the many climactic moments of the symphony, especially in the fourth movement, plangent and cantabile at other times – has been honed to perfection by Mark Gibson, who led the young musicians in an impassioned performance that reminded the listeners in Corbett Auditorium of what a treasure this orchestra is.

The Italian word for teacher/mentor/master is maestro, and Mark Gibson is the teacher, mentor, master, heart, and soul of one of the two superb orchestral ensembles of our principal Alma Mater. In a city well known for its many musical gems the Philharmonia Orchestra is a precious commodity under the care of a great maestro.  

The orchestral concerts at CCM continue next week when Aik Khai Pung leads the CCM Concert Orchestra in an ambitious program that will feature Schubert’s Fierrabras Overture, Haydn’s Cello Concerto, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, “Eroica.”

To learn more details about CCM’s upcoming events go to

Rafael de Acha            ALL ABOUT THE ARTS